No, Obama didn’t hand out a get-out-of-deportation-free card

at 01:05 PM ET, 06/15/2012

President Obama’s decision to grant deportation relief to young illegal immigrants has been portrayed by both supporters and opponents as a radical break from the status quo. In reality, it’s an extension of what Obama has been doing for an entire year: using the executive branch to discourage the deportation of certain illegal immigrants that the administration has deemed a lower priority — including students who came to the United States as young children.
Audience members listen to President Obama speak about immigration reform in El Paso, Tex. (Charles Dharapak - AP)

Last June, Obama’s immigration chief, John Morton, issued a memo instructing federal immigration agents, lawyers and others to make the deportation of certain classes of immigrants — particularly those who had strong ties to the United States — a lower priority. The memo instructed officials to use new criteria to decide which deportation cases to pursue and which ones to lay aside for the time being.

Such “prosecutorial discretion” is exercised on a case-by-case basis. In other words, it isn’t a get-out-of-deportation-free card, but it effectively makes the deportation of certain immigrants less likely by deferring action.

Obama’s new policy is an extension and expansion of what has been happening under Morton’s memo, essentially prioritizing a subset of immigrants who were already covered by last year’s policy shift. The 2011 memo extended potential deportation relief to a huge swath of immigrants: the elderly, caretakers of the disabled, college graduates or students, and those who’ve made “contributions to the community.” Since then, nearly 300,000 deportation cases have been reviewed using the new criteria, and about 7 percent of them — totaling more than 20,000 — were indefinitely removed from the docket.

The administration’s latest policy singles out certain members of this group for additional protection and opportunities: young college students who came to the United States illegally as children. These immigrants will have their deportation cases deferred for two years, “subject to renewal,” according to the White House memo. They, of course, are the immigrants who’ve been the poster children of the DREAM Act. Like other immigrants whose cases have been deferred, they don’t receive lawful immigration status.

That said, there are some significant differences between last year’s memo and the White House’s announcement today. First, today’s memo sets policy for the entire Department of Homeland Security, not just Morton’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Despite last year’s memo, Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center, said many DREAM youth still faced deportation as cases were backlogged.

“They were really dealing with a huge population of undocumented youth,” Giovagnoli said. “The process they put in place simply wasn’t going to be adequate to address that.”

The White House’s new policy should make the use of prosecutorial discretion “more robust because of the clarity of guidance out there,” she said.

What’s more, the policy change allows young immigrants whose deportation cases have been deferred to apply for work authorization. Previously, only immigrants who were “widows and orphans” were invited to apply for such work permits, according to Giovagnoli. Now immigrant students whose deportation cases have been deferred will be offered the same opportunity.

There is no official path to citizenship, but indirectly, it could help illegal immigrants in their case for a green card.

“Deferred action is a temporary status that gives you the chance to work, go to school, etc. So in some cases, it might allow you to acquire the skills that might qualify you for an employment green card or might buy you the time until another category you are waiting for becomes available,” Giovagnoli explained.

 
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