Homeland Security announced Monday that it will once again begin approving petitions for a stay of deportation for migrants with hardship cases such as major medical problems, after being hit with a ferocious backlash when it stopped taking the cases.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it will still consider “limiting” its role, but said it will at least go through all the cases that were pending as of Aug. 7, which is when the decision was first made to halt deferred action for all but military families and “Dreamers,” immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children.
Deferred action is a grant of a stay of deportation. It’s perhaps best known as the mechanism President Obama used for his deportation amnesty for Dreamers — DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — but it’s long been a more limited power the government has had in other cases.
USCIS’s decision earlier this month to curtail deferred action approvals was a misstep by the agency, which had been on a winning streak in fulfilling President Trump’s immigration goals. USCIS said at the time that another agency, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, could still use deferred action to stop deportations at the back end.
USCIS insisted that ICE was the right agency.
But ICE officials said they were blindsided by the announcement.
“We have no program to do this. We have no intention of taking this over,” an ICE official said at the time.
The move also spurred a series of stories in the press of immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally and dealing with health conditions — either their own or their children’s — who’d had requests for deferred action denied and were fearing they’d be deported.
One activist called the move “a death sentence” for migrants affected.
“Deporting caretakers of U.S. citizen children with serious medical conditions is an affront to common decency and American values — and forces parents to choose between family separation or a death sentence,” said the Rev. John L. McCullough, president of Church World Service.
Advocacy groups said USCIS made the change without advance notice, denying the public a chance to weigh in beforehand.
It appeared the agency knew its move would be controversial, since it explicitly said it wouldn’t apply to cases involving the military, which are among the most sympathetic figures in any immigration debate.
Deferred action isn’t supposed to be a legal status, though some migrants are able to use it as a bridge to remain in the U.S. while they wait for another avenue of legal status to come open, such as a family-based green card.
USCIS said in looking at the applications already pending, it will make “case-by-case discretionary decisions” about who is worthy. And the agency suggested it is looking to scale down the program so its adjudicators can work on other immigration benefits.
“As USCIS’ deferred action caseload is reduced, the career employees who decide such cases will be more available to address other types of legal immigration applications on a more efficient basis,” the agency said in a statement announcing the program’s limited reboot.
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