Republicans are up in arms about an internal draft memo by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) leaked last week which outlines “administrative relief options to…reduce the threat of removal for certain individuals present in the United States without authorization.” Immigration hawk Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) blasted the Obama administration, stating, “[t]he President has promised border security and immigration enforcement. He has said we must hold individuals accountable for their illegal acts. But now we find out the truth: while saying one thing to the public, the Obama administration is scheming to ensure that immigration laws are not enforced.” Smith went as far as to accuse Obama himself of “conspiring to implement amnesty without any Congressional action.” However, Smith’s attack doesn’t line up with some comments he made a few years ago.
In 2000, Lamar recommended officials handle the harsh effects that the 1996 Immigration Act was having on legal immigrants administratively, rather than have Congress amend the act. At the time, the New York Times reported that “Representative Smith suggested two ways for the government to stop deportations that, though required by the statute, would be inhumane” — options that caught the Immigration and Naturalization Service office off guard:
First, he [Smith] called for the Immigration and Naturalization Service to exercise prosecutorial discretion in hardship cases. That is, immigration officials would simply decline to proceed with a deportation case. […]
Second, Mr. Smith proposed that the attorney general use a provision of immigration law that allows her to ‘’parole’’ aliens into the country for ‘’urgent humanitarian reasons.’’ Parole, he argued, could be used to prevent deportation as well as to allow entry. […] ‘’The Justice Department or I.N.S. could assign one staff member to look at these cases for parole,’’ Mr. Smith said. ‘’He could probably handle 10 cases a day.’’ […] ‘’The government can always do what it wants to do in hardship cases,’’ the Congressman said. ‘’We should not let the letter of the law get in the way of the spirit.’’
Granted, Smith was referring to the government’s ability to parole legal immigrants with deportation orders. However, Smith concedes that it is within the President’s power to do so — something that many of his Republican colleagues have argued is not. In a letter authored by GOP senators requesting a hearing on the issue, they stated that they “are troubled that the executive branch could be engaged in an effort to inappropriately expand its authority to ensure illegal immigrants are not removed from the United States.” However, in 2000, Smith probably would’ve rightly argued that it’s not an inappropriate expansion of power, but rather, an exertion of the capacities that are legally within the purview of USCIS.
Contrary to what Republicans suggest, however, that doesn’t mean USCIS is or ever planned on moving forward. An editorial in the Washington Times warns, “the question is not whether government can implement the myriad suggestions in the memo, but rather why President Obama is going to such extraordinary and unprecedented lengths to protect millions of people who are in violation of federal law.” However, other than a memo written by low level staff members that was “borne out of brainstorming sessions” that took place in 2007 during the Bush administration, there’s not a shred of evidence to suggest that’s the case. One USCIS spokesmen clarified that “as a matter of good government, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will discuss just about every issue that comes within the purview of the immigration system.” He also definitively stated that “DHS will not grant deferred action or humanitarian parole to the nation’s entire illegal immigrant population.”
The reality of the situation is that deportations have actually reached an all-time high under the Obama administration. Immigration and Customs Enforcement expects to deport an estimated 400,000 people this fiscal year, 25 percent more than were deported by President Bush in 2007. And if that’s not enough, Obama explicitly rejected the idea of granting administrative relief in his July 1 speech at American University, proclaiming, “there are those in the immigrants’ rights community who have argued passionately that we should simply provide those who are [here] illegally with legal status… I believe such an indiscriminate approach would be both unwise and unfair.”
Most importantly, while granting administrative relief to certain vulnerable undocumented populations would certainly alleviate some of the suffering of the immigrant community, it wouldn’t fix the broken immigration system. Republicans don’t like to admit it, but comprehensive immigration reform isn’t amnesty. Instead, it consists of creating an immigration visa system that responds to the nation’s economic needs, securing the border, and putting undocumented immigrants on a tough, but fair path to legalization — politically, or practically, none of these components are a solution on its own. Perhaps that’s why Smith essentially supported the status quo in 2000 by recommending ad hoc administrative action directed at a small group of people over Congress actually fixing the “inhumanity” of the immigration system once and for all.