Credibility is the cornerstone of reputation.  That’s why, despite the shock and awe that regular readers of may experience, this blogger (who sees immigration dysfunction virtually everywhere, especially under the Obama Administration) now heartily applauds recent actions of two immigration agencies within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services). 

Turning away the mob.jpgAs suggested below and in a Bender’s Immigration Bulletin Podcast I recorded on June 18 at the 2011 American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) annual conference in San Diego, Directors, Alejandro Mayorkas of USCIS and John Morton of ICE, as well as the President and DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, must be commended for taking significant steps to improve the administration of immigration justice (and along the way help the economy).

Mr. Mayorkas, to a far greater degree than any USCIS Director or legacy INS Commissioner in the last 30 years, expresses sincere respect for the rule of law.  He understands and requires compliance with the obligation of his agency’s personnel to apply statutory immigration law in good faith as written and adhere to precedent decisions and national policies.   Mr. Mayorkas has brought the dispassion and intelligence of a lawyers’ lawyer to USCIS, making changes based on reason and law, without favoring any person or interest, and committing to a policy of justice and equality of treatment and access.  (For any who may doubt or challenge my assertion, check out two sessions of the AILA conference in which Mr. Mayorkas offered his views [CD Nos. 17 & 86, purchase required]. If you think I routinely gush over the statements of USCIS officials at AILA conferences, disabuse yourself by checking out this prior rant.])

Mr. Morton — despite a vote of no confidence by the ICE labor union — has chosen to exercise leadership.  He has released two significant policy memos encouraging his officers to exercise  prosecutorial discretion, based on a 19-factor analysis, in favor of low-priority immigration violators and victims and witnesses of crime, and against perpetrators of violence and other serious felonies.

Most immigrants’ rights groups chastised Mr. Morton, however, for not having gone far enough.  They attack ICE for not surrendering on the star-crossed program known as Secure Communities that has ensnared and deported far more petty immigration violators than hardened criminals. 

On the other hand, the nonpartisan Immigration Policy Center and AILA, the national immigration bar association, have lauded the new prosecutorial-discretion (PD) memos as positive moves.  They argue persuasively that in the absence of comprehensive immigration reforms which would align America’s broken and wobbly immigration system with our national interests, and in an era of limited resources, the memos reflect a leadership decision to apply “smart enforcement” policies.  Smart enforcement, as the memos articulate, ensures that ICE’s officers on the ground make individualized determinations of eligibility for prosecutorial discretion. 

Noncitizens whose personal circumstances, immigration history and foreseeable path to legal status cause them to rank low on the enforcement-priorities list — the memos declare — should be given deferred action.  Deferred action, in turn, makes them eligible for a work permit.  On the other side of the PD equation, individuals with particularly unsavory backgrounds or with rap sheets suggesting that they are dangerous to the communities should be fast-tracked on the due-process train headed for a removal hearing.  (One less understood but welcome aspect of the memos is that now an ICE attorney can set aside any Notice to Appear that he or she determines would involve an individual who is better suited for deferred action than a removal hearing, thereby freeing up precious judicial and executive resources to remove highly undesirable or dangerous noncitizens.)

Despite the deserving plaudits at the top of USCIS and ICE, it remains to be seen whether these interim, though important, initiatives will bear fruit.  Will the line officers and supervisors of each agency embrace their leaders’ moves?  Or, as is perhaps more likely, will they engage in passive-aggressive behavior, palace intrigue and heel-dragging? 

Given the ICE union’s condemnation of Mr. Morton and his policy memos (and their probable unwillingness to excersise conscientious compassion), as well as the resistance of some within USCIS to Mr. Mayorkas’ commitment to the rule of law, the stakeholder community must apply its own leverage.  Here are a few things insiders and outsiders can and should do:

  1. What Get’s Measured and Rewarded Gets Done.  ICE must take steps to collect metrics on requests for prosecutorial discretion and individual ICE officer decisions.  The agency must make sure that it receives sufficient raw data to determine whether decisions on discretion align with ICE’s national enforcement priorities.  For officers who persist in repeatedly routing objectively deserving cases to the immigration courts rather than to deferred action status, appropriate warnings and discipline should ensue.  Those, however, who instead apply the PD policy within its spirit and letter should receive ICE’s approbation and career promotion. 
  2. The Sunlight Brand of Disinfectant. DREAM Act supporters and others with favorable immigration equities should mount a grass-roots campaign to pressure ICE to publish meaningful data on the agency’s actual exercise of prosecutorial discretion or enforcement.  To make this happen, community-based organizations (CBOs) should campaign to encourage individuals requesting prosecutorial discretion to waive personal privacy over key data fields that correspond with the worthy and adverse factors in their individual cases. If such waivers are coupled with the requesting parties’ insistence that the decisions be released, then CBOs, the public and the media would know whether or not the PD policy is working. Congress can also make sure through its oversight function that reliable data is made available for all to see.
  3. USCIS Must Issue Its Own PD memos. ICE holds no monopoly on discretion.  As legacy INS Commissioner, Doris Meissner, made clear in 2000, immigration adjudicators also have power to show leniency in deserving cases.  Mr. Mayorkas should formally instruct all USCIS officials that they too will be held accountable if they waste precious resources issuing burdensome requests for evidence and notices of intention to revoke or deny petitions or applications where a wise exercise of discretion under existing USCIS regulations would otherwise fairly resolve the case.  There should be no more spitting-on-the-sidewalk rulings placing otherwise law-abiding foreign citizens “out-of-status” who seek immigration benefits. A fairly administered PD policy could create immigration miracle cures that allow USCIS to forgive minor visa missteps.
  4. You Get What You Pay For. Immigration notarios and unlicensed consultants (notwithstanding the commendable federal campaign to eradicate them) will no doubt continue to harm unrepresented immigrants by claiming that prosecutorial discretion is the new way to obtain work permission. Because there is no government form to request PD, however, the myriad immigration form-preparer outfits cannot legally represent persons seeking PD.  Only “accredited representatives” and lawyers in good standing may do so.  The business and nonprofit communities should therefore provide funding to lawyers (in compliance with ethics rules) so that well-documented and deserving PD requests with a good chance of success are submitted. Employers and labor unions who have tussled of late over the Obama Administration’s “silent raid” policy should instead cooperate and identify/assist loyal and deserving workers with legal-fee-subsidized PD requests. 
  5. Oppose Hypocrisy.  PD is not “back-door amnesty.” No doubt House Judiciary Committee Chair Lamar Smith dislikes eating the words he wrote in 1999: “The principle of prosecutorial discretion is well established.”  He also knows that the votes are not there to roll back smart enforcement or override an assured Presidential veto of any such measure.  Don’t let Rep. Smith and his ilk get away with any false claims or ill-advised policy reversals.
  6. Oppose Hate.  Immigration restrictionists are not pleased with the PD memos and will do whatever they can to attack any discernible trend to exercise discretion favorably.  The antidote to hate is the telling of truthful narratives by deserving persons who are allowed through PD to pursue, however tentatively, the American Dream. So, stakeholders, tell the truthful stories of honest people striving for a chance to make it in America and allow prosecutorial discretion to flourish. 

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At least until our politicians begin to act like leaders who value country over power, let us hope that the new memos and the new direction signaled by DHS allow a meaningful chance for American justice to prevail against the insensate mob.