WASHINGTON — The Obama administration, unable to push an immigration overhaul through Congress, is considering ways it could go around lawmakers to allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States, according to an agency memo.
The internal draft written by officials at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services outlines ways that the government could provide "relief" to illegal immigrants — including delaying deportation for some, perhaps indefinitely, or granting green cards to others — in the absence of legislation revamping the system.
It's emerging as chances fade in this election year for a measure President Barack Obama favors to put the nation's estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants on a path to legal status, and as debate rages over an Arizona law targeting people suspected of being in the country illegally.
The 11-page internal memo, written in April to the agency's director, says: "This memorandum offers administrative relief options to promote family unity, foster economic growth, achieve significant process improvements and reduce the threat of removal for certain individuals present in the United States without authorization."
It goes on: "In the absence of comprehensive immigration reform, USCIS can extend benefits and/or protections to many individuals or groups."
The memo provoked a backlash by Republicans who called it evidence that Obama is looking for ways of relaxing immigration policies without political consensus to enact a new law.
"The document provides an additional basis for our concerns that the administration will go to great lengths to circumvent Congress and unilaterally execute a backdoor amnesty plan," said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who obtained and circulated the memo. "The problem remains that if you reward illegality, you get more of it."
Grassley led a group of conservative GOP senators who wrote to Obama in June asking him to promise that the administration wouldn't use its authority to "change the current position of a large group of illegal aliens already in the United States."
The Iowan's staff said the group has not received a response.
"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," said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.
Christopher Bentley, a spokesman for the agency, said the internal document "should not be equated with official action or policy," and represented only "deliberation and exchange of ideas."
"We continue to maintain that comprehensive bipartisan legislation, coupled with smart, effective enforcement, is the only solution to our nation's immigration challenges," he said in a statement.
Still, the memo makes clear that even without such a bill, immigration officials have identified a variety of ways to relax U.S. policy to allow more undocumented immigrants who might otherwise face deportation to stay in the country. Among the options outlined is expanding the use of "deferred action" — in which the government can use its discretion to halt a deportation indefinitely, usually for an urgent humanitarian reason.
"While it is theoretically possible to grant deferred action to an unrestricted number of unlawfully present individuals, doing so would likely be controversial, not to mention expensive," the memo says. Instead, officials suggest using the option for certain groups, such as tens of thousands of high school graduates who have been brought up in the U.S. and plan to attend college or serve in the armed forces.
Democrats and Republicans have repeatedly tried to push through legislation — known as the "Dream Act" — to cover those students.
"To be clear," Bentley said, the government "will not grant deferred action or humanitarian parole to the nation's entire illegal immigrant population."
Another option included in the document is to allow more illegal immigrants to receive "parole-in-place" status. This would let them stay in the United States while they seek legal status.
The document discusses applying both those options to spouses of active duty military personnel, for instance.
It also suggests expanding the definition of "extreme hardship" for exceptions in immigration cases — a prospect that alarmed critics who said it could lower the bar so virtually any undocumented person could meet it.
And the memo suggests allowing people who entered the United States illegally and were granted so-called "Temporary Protected Status" because of a crisis in their home countries to stay and get permanent legal residency.
The memo notes that this would be a change in long-standing policy, and says, "Opening this pathway will help thousands of applicants obtain lawful permanent residence without having to leave the U.S."
Some proponents of revamping the immigration system said the document simply points out ways the agency can fix old and outdated practices that separate families and hurt workers and employers.
Writing on the Immigration Policy Center's blog, Director Mary Giovagnoli, a former immigration official, said, "Good for you, USCIS, for trying to do what it can within that broken system."