House Democrats issued a dire warning on Wednesday to immigrants: Even with valid documents, the federal government may try to deport you.
In a closed-door meeting, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told Democratic members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus that if taken to court, the White House may not support an Obama-era initiative that extended temporary deportation relief and work permits to roughly 800,000 undocumented immigrants.
Last month, Texas and ten other states threatened to sue the White House if it does not rescind the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative by September 5. DACA grants deportation relief and work authorization in two-year increments to so-called DREAMers who were brought to the country as children through irregular migration. State officials are also calling on the DHS agency and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to phase out DACA by refusing to issue new work permits or renew current ones.
Kelly has said he personally supports DACA, but a spokesperson for DHS indicated he has been told by the Trump administration’s lawyers that the states would likely win their legal challenge against the program.
Kelly also told the Democratic lawmakers that he has met with Sessions to discuss DACA, though he did not provide details of their conversation. Given Sessions’ hard-line immigration stance, however, it’s unlikely the Attorney General would defend DACA on the government’s behalf.
“I asked the secretary very directly whether the administration would defend DACA and he couldn’t give me a conclusive answer,” Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) told the Dallas News.
In a scathing press release released after the meeting, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL) warned immigrants living in this country — including DACA recipients and people who have been in the United States for decades under the Temporary Protected Status program — that they are in “imminent danger” of losing their protected statuses in the country.
“They actually want to take millions of people who are documented — with our own government — make them undocumented, and then go after them and their families.”
“I think we have to prepare for the worst and get ready to fight mass deportation,” Gutiérrez said in a press statement. “They actually want to take millions of people who are documented — with our own government — make them undocumented, and then go after them and their families.”
To support this dire prediction, Gutiérrez pointed to a particularly startling revelation from this week’s meeting: Kelly did not appear to know his agency could direct federal immigration agents to exercise prosecutorial discretion and spare some people from deportation.
That’s surprising given that Kelly’s predecessor, Secretary Jeh Johnson, issued several internal memos on prosecutorial discretion limiting enforcement actions to prioritize the detention of criminal immigrants rather than immigrants without criminal records.
“Sec. Kelly said he could not help people and their American citizen children who have no criminal record and are being deported, as if he doesn’t understand that he has the power under current law to spare people through his prosecutorial discretion,” Gutiérrez continued. “I told him straight up that he could prevent the August deportation of Francisca Lino — the wife of a U.S. citizen and mother of U.S. citizen children in Chicago — just by picking up the phone and he seemed not to know he has that power.”
There have already been some clear indications the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a Homeland Security division tasked with detaining and deporting immigrants, aren’t planning on approaching immigrants with any kind of discretion. In a February memo, ICE instructed agents to place any undocumented immigrant they encounter in deportation proceedings regardless of their criminal history.
Lawmakers at the meeting also pressed Kelly to support a bill called the Bridge Act, which would permanently codify the work permit and deportation relief aspects of the DACA initiative. They then invited him to attend a news conference in support of the bill before the August recess, the Associated Press reported. Kelly told them he would consider it.