by Maggie Hyde
Seventeen groups called on President Obama Monday to declare that he will not grant amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants.
In a press conference in Washington, the anti-illegal-immigration groups said they fear the president will go behind Congress' back and implement a plan that lets undocumented immigrants gain citizenship.
They released a letter that began:
"Dear Mr. President: There have been reports that your administration is considering usage of its administrative authority to effectively legalize significant numbers of illegal aliens. We strongly urge that you refrain from pursuing that tactic."
The letter, signed by Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum and Lisa Miller of Tea Party WDC, among others, calls on Obama to "issue an unambiguous statement" that he won't go behind Congress' back or grant amnesty.
Other sources called the groups' fears irrational.
The groups said their concerns stem from information from within the Department of Homeland Security and particularly a memo, titled "Administrative Alternatives to Comprehensive Immigration Reform," leaked to Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley's office.
The stated purpose of the memo, prepared by four officials of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and addressed to USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas, is to offer ways to promote immigrant "family unity" and economic prosperity, and "to reduce the threat of removal for certain individuals present in the United States without authorization."
USCIS is the benefits arm of the Department of Homeland Security, dealing with the status of green card and visa holders. For immigrants, it is the bureaucratic key-holder to citizenship.
The memo appears to discuss a sort of back-up plan for USCIS should no immigration reform be passed by Congress.
"In the absence of Comprehensive Immigration Reform, USCIS can extend benefits and/or protections to many individuals and groups by issuing new guidance and regulations, exercising discretion with regard to parole-in-place, deferred action and the issuance of Notices to Appear (NTA), and adopting significant process improvements," the memo reads.
Monday's press conference came after a group of senators, led by Republican Grassley, also wrote a letter to the president.
Signed by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), the letter asks for reassurance from the White House that no actions described in the memo would be implemented.
"We would appreciate receiving a commitment that the Administration has no plans to use either authority to change the current position of a large group of illegal aliens already in the United States," their letter read.
In a press release responding to the leaked memo, USCIS Press Secretary Christopher Bentley said the agency would not comment on "notional, pre-decisional memos." "To be clear, DHS will not grant deferred action or humanitarian parole to the nation's entire illegal immigrant population," he said.
The White House did not immediately comment on either group's letter, but in a July speech on immigration at American University, President Obama said that his administration would not grant outright amnesty to illegal immigrants.
"They must be required to admit that they broke the law," he said. "They should be required to register, pay their taxes, pay a fine, and learn English. They must get right with the law before they can get in line and earn their citizenship."
On the Fox News morning show "Fox and Friends," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said last month that he had not read the USCIS memo. He said the White House did not have the plans to use discretionary authority to deal with the immigration issues, adding, "This administration believes that the only way to deal with immigration is to do it comprehensively, to do it through Congress."
So far, the senators and other groups have been unsatisfied with the USCIS response, and have seen it as further confirmation of their amnesty fears.
Donald Kerwin, vice president for programs at the Migration Policy Institute, which describes itself as a nonpartisan think tank, said the options discussed in the leaked memo are not amnesty, but rather agency attempts to deal with the logistical implausibility of deporting mass numbers of people currently living within U.S. borders.
"The immigration system is totally overwhelmed," he said, adding that ICE can only deport around 400,000 people a year.
"So there have to be decisions made as to who is put into the court proceedings to be removed from the country."
As for assuming that options such as "deferred action" and "parole in place" are code words for amnesty -- and accusing Obama of being lax in enforcement -- Kerwin says it doesn't add up. The Obama administration has surpassed the previous one in both the number of deportations and fines of employers hiring illegal immigrants, Kerwin said.
"Those don't sound like amnesties to me," he said. "Those sound like common-sense policies that are going to be the basis of individual determinations. How you call something like that a large-scale legalization, I'm not sure."
But the illegal-immigration groups seem convinced the leaked memo is indicative of the Obama administration's creeping use of executive power.
"A lot of groups are looking at this because it looks to them like a pattern of abusive power," said Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, a group that advocates for reduced immigrant numbers for the reason of preserving American jobs.
"You have the administration grabbing more authority than they really deserve."
ProEnglish, which does not have an official stance on immigration reform, took issue with the ideas in the memo because amnesty would confer legal status to immigrants without them having to conform to any English-language standards.
"The way it is set up now is that in order to become a citizen you have to learn English," said Jayne Cannava, executive director of ProEnglish. "By granting blanket amnesty to the 11 million illegal immigrants they would bypass that test."