A high-ranking immigration official brushed off claims that the Obama administration wants to make an end-run around Congress to grant amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants, saying the notion is "nuts."
Roxana Bacon, the top attorney at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said that many of the administrative remedies outlined in a leaked draft memo she co-wrote are concepts that had been floating around the agency, which oversees legal immigration, for years. The memo caused a backlash among Republicans, who asserted it was proof that the Obama administration is looking for a "backdoor amnesty plan."
Bacon, who became USCIS chief counsel last October, explained that the memo is only a snapshot of a long conversation and represents government at its best: deliberative and open-minded.
"The ideas are not new ideas, and came out of many different sources: Congress, advocacy groups, academia and within government itself," she said. "It's only a collection of ideas, not a final determination."
Speaking last Friday on a panel at the American Bar Association's annual meeting in San Francisco, Bacon made her first public statements about the memo, titled "Administrative Alternatives to Comprehensive Immigration Reform." Bacon and three other officials sent the draft in April to the agency's director, Alejandro Mayorkas, according to news reports.
The unadopted memo outlines potential administrative fixes to immigration law if Congress doesn't pass new legislation. Among them is a form of immigration "relief" to exercise discretion to delay -- even indefinitely -- deportation.
Here's how the officials introduce the draft:
This memorandum offers administrative relief options to promote family unity, foster economic growth, achieve significant process improvements and reduce the threat of removal for certain individuals present in the United States without authorization. It includes recommendations regarding implementation timeframes and required resources.
Although the need for comprehensive immigration reform is frequently mentioned, Congress has not seriously debated the controversial topic since 2007. Chances appear slim that legislators will take up the matter in an election year. Nevertheless, the immigration issue has heated up in recent months as states, such as Arizona and Virginia, have waded into the debate.
Meanwhile, criminal immigration prosecution and deportation levels under the Obama administration rival or surpass those during the Bush era, according to recent reports by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Republicans have nonetheless blasted the White House for being lenient on illegal immigrants and lax on border security.
Figures posted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Homeland Security Department arm that detains and deports immigrants, show that the agency's removal numbers for the first nine months of Fiscal Year 2010 are down by nearly 9,000 compared to the same time period last year. TRAC notes in its report that delays in recording can result in preliminary FY 2010 figures missing some cases, making comparisons between 2009 and 2010 year-to-date unreliable.
Lucas Guttentag, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Immigrants' Rights Project and a co-panelist with Bacon, said that the memo illustrates that the Obama administration is thoughtfully considering modest steps to address some of the "perverse aspects of immigration law."
Obtained by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the 11-page memo outraged Republicans, who said it showed the Obama administration was trying to sneak around Congress to give amnesty for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. The memo became public the day after a federal judge blocked key provisions of Arizona's controversial immigration law, known as SB 1070.
"The document provides an additional basis for our concerns that the administration will go to great lengths to circumvent Congress and unilaterally execute a backdoor amnesty plan," Grassley told The Associated Press.
USCIS could grant deferred action to an unrestricted number of illegal immigrants, but "doing so would likely be controversial, not to mention expensive," the memo states. Instead of an umbrella "amnesty," the agency could use deferred action with specific groups, such as young immigrants who would be eligible under legislation known as the Dream Act.
The proposed bill aims to create a pathway to citizenship for people who have clean criminal records, graduated from high school in the United States and have at least two years of college or military service.