On June 15, 2012, homeland-security secretary Janet Napolitano authorized a significant change in U.S. immigration policy. Nearly a million illegal immigrants — younger individuals brought to the country as children who are currently enrolled in school or are in the military, and who have not been convicted of a serious crime — would be eligible to apply for “deferred action” and could obtain work permits. The secretary’s memo bore striking similarities to legislation — the DREAM Act — that has repeatedly failed to pass the Senate, most recently in December 2010.
Since then, the Obama administration has been approving these applications at an extraordinary clip. According to statistics published by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), 472,004 deferred-action applications were accepted for review between August 2012 and March 2013; only 16,778 were “rejected” or, rather, deemed incomplete and returned to applicants for resubmission — a 96.6 acceptance rate. During that same period, the administration reviewed and approved 268,361 of the accepted applications, and denied just 1,377 — an approval rate of 99.5 percent.
This month marked the first time USCIS had published any statistics on deferred-status acceptance rates. Jessica Vaughan, the director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, thinks the release might have something to do with her April 8 testimony in federal court, in which she noted the omission in the administration’s data. Critics of the Gang of Eight’s immigration-reform bill, which contains even more generous provisions with respect to “DREAM-eligible” individuals, are concerned that the Obama administration’s lenient, and potentially dishonest, approach (critics argue the administration is manipulating data to claim a higher number of deportations) to immigration enforcement suggests the Gang’s plan would amount to little more than widespread amnesty.
Vaughan’s recent testimony was on behalf of a group of U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents who are suing the administration over the Napolitano memo. The agents say the new policy has wreaked havoc on their ability to enforce the law; illegal immigrants arrested on criminal charges — not just immigration violations — routinely claim protection under “Obama’s DREAM Act” and are often released without charge or threat of deportation because the agents have been ordered to “take them at their word” that they are eligible for deferred action.
In one instance, an illegal immigrant detained on a domestic-assault charge in El Paso, Texas, allegedly assaulted two ICE agents — a federal felony — as they tried to place the immigrant in a vehicle. According to the plaintiff’s court filing, ICE supervisors ordered the detainee released without charge; when the arresting agents protested, they were told that “it was a management decision, based on the president’s new immigration policies.” The incident occurred a little over a month after Napolitano released her memo in 2012.
Immigrant-rights activists and liberal interest groups celebrated the administration’s deferred-action memo. They ought to be similarly satisfied with the Gang of Eight proposal, which would establish “streamlined procedures” for DREAM-eligible immigrants, provided they were under the age of 16 when they entered the country, have earned a high-school diploma, and have attended college for at least two years or served in the military for at least four years. These individuals would be able to apply for lawful permanent status after a five-year provisionary period — half as long as non-eligible immigrants would have to wait. Additionally, the Gang’s legislation eliminates the age cap (29 under the DREAM Act, 30 under the Napolitano order) for applicants, meaning that illegal immigrants of any age may seek preferential status under the proposed law.
Further, the Gang’s bill would allow the homeland-security secretary to waive the education and military requirements if she believes an immigrant has shown “compelling circumstances” for his or her failure to satisfy them. In fact, the bill gives the secretary considerable discretion to waive or alter many of its other core provisions, too, such as the restrictions on illegal immigrants convicted of multiple crimes.
The DREAM provisions in the Gang’s bill may not be the most controversial ones. However, the administration’s high approval rate for deferred-action applications does not suggest an intention to enforce a very rigorous standard, and, given the administration’s dubious enforcement record in general, is only further proof of the need for healthy skepticism.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.