The new policy was described in an internal memorandum from Citizenship and Immigration Services that was released last week by Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, and caused a furor in Washington on Friday.
The memo outlined measures that the agency could take under existing laws to “reduce the threat of removal for certain individuals present in the United States without authorization,” instead of waiting for Congress to pass an immigration overhaul to give legal status to millions of illegal immigrants.
With the title “Administrative Alternatives to Comprehensive Immigration Reform,” the memo prompted protests from Mr. Grassley and other Republicans that the Obama administration was trying an end run around Congress, rather than confronting a divisive debate on immigration legislation during an election season. The memo was first reported on the Web site of The National Review, a conservative magazine.
Officials of the immigration agency denied on Friday that they were pursuing any plan to legalize millions of illegal immigrants by fiat.
Aside from a title that administration officials acknowledged was provocative, the memo describes possible changes to the immigration agency’s interpretation of immigration law, including several that have been recommended by lawmakers from both parties to make it easier for immigrants who are trying to work within the system to gain legal status.
According to the memo, one of those changes has been quietly put into practice since May. The new policy allows illegal immigrants who are spouses, parents and children of American citizens serving in the military to complete the process of becoming legal residents without having to leave the United States — a procedure that is known in immigration law terms as granting parole. The memo says agency officials approved the new parole approach “to preserve family unity and address Department of Defense concerns regarding soldier safety and readiness for duty.”
In a letter on July 9, 18 members of the House, including nine Republicans, urged Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to make broader use of that measure and several others to “provide some relief” to active-duty soldiers with close relatives who did not have legal immigration status. The measures the lawmakers advocated are also proposed in the immigration agency’s memo, including the broader use of The “deferred action,” a power that allows immigration authorities to cancel deportations.
Among the Republicans signing the letter were Representatives William M. Thornberry of Texas and Representative Michael R. Turner of Ohio, both members of the House Armed Services Committee, as well as Representatives Mike Pence of Indiana and Sam Johnson of Texas. Mr. Turner and Mr. Johnson are staunch opponents of amnesty for illegal immigrants. The letter was also signed by Representative Zoe Lofgren of California, the Democrat who is chairwoman of the House immigration subcommittee.
Department of Homeland Security officials estimate that many thousands of military service members have close relatives who are illegal immigrants. Under a legal Catch-22 in immigration law, those families could face as much as 10 years of separation if the immigrant relative leaves the United States to pursue a legal visa.
The representatives’ letter cited the case of Lt. Kenneth Tenebro, an Army officer and American citizen who had served in Iraq. His Philippine-born wife, Wilma, had been caught in that same legal bind. On July 6, the immigration agency granted deferred action for one year for Mrs. Tenebro, suspending the threat of deportation and offering her new channels to fix her status. Until now, officials said, they have applied the new policy for the military on a case-by-case basis.
Mr. Grassley and 11 other Republican senators who signed a letter this week to Secretary Napolitano about the immigration agency memo, said they were concerned that immigration officials would use their discretionary powers to grant a blanket legal status to millions of illegal immigrants.
“We remain concerned about potential plans for a large-scale effort to offer parole or to defer action on undocumented aliens in the United States,” the senators wrote. “We do not believe that such actions should be used for a large population of illegal aliens or used to bypass Congress and the legislative process.”
Mr. Grassley and a group of Republicans had written a similar letter on June 21.
Administration officials sought to play down the memo. They said the proposals were largely “notional” and most had not been approved as policy by Alejandro Mayorkas, the director of Citizenship and Immigration Services. However, the memo is signed by some of the highest officials in the agency, including Roxana Bacon, the general counsel, and Denise Vanison, the chief of the office of policy and strategy.
The memo finds that it is “theoretically possible to grant deferred action to an unrestricted number of unlawfully present individuals,” but rejects that option as politically “controversial” and too expensive. The memo suggests the agency could instead “tailor the use of this discretionary option for particular groups.”
Christopher Bentley, the spokesman for the immigration agency, said, “To be clear, D.H.S. will not grant deferred action or humanitarian parole to the nation’s entire illegal immigrant population.”