More on Immigration Happening in Courts; in Congress, Not So Much

As the Obama administration filed an emergency motion seeking to overturn a judge's order blocking programs to defer deportation for certain immigrants, a policy adviser for the U.S. bishops said there's little chance for comprehensive immigration reform through Congress.

The Justice Department March 12 filed an emergency motion in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals asking it to lift a preliminary injunction by U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen, who blocked an expansion of administration programs to defer deportation for several groups of immigrants who lack legal status.

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On Feb. 16, Hanen, of Brownsville, Texas, blocked the expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and a similar administration initiative that would defer deportation for potentially millions of others, known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, called DAPA.

The DACA expansion was scheduled to take effect Feb 18 and DAPA was to open in the spring. Texas and 25 other states had sued to block the programs, saying President Barack Obama's executive orders to create them are unconstitutional and that the programs would cost the states more money for law enforcement, health care and education. Hanen said his order applied nationwide.

Meanwhile, advocates continue to prod Congress to pass a comprehensive approach to immigration reform, or at least not to make conditions worse for families affected by lack of legal immigration status.

And Catholic legal assistance agencies are continuing to encourage immigrants to get their paperwork together for potential participation in the programs or to seek other paths toward legalizing their status, said participants in a March 12 conference on American Catholics and immigration sponsored by several organizations within The Catholic University of America and Migration and Refugee Services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Kevin Appleby, director of migration and refugee policy for the USCCB, said congressional leaders show no taste for trying to pass the kind of broad immigration law reform that has long been the objective of the church, civil rights groups, other religious institutions, unions and many types of business interests.

From the House, Appleby said, the only immigration legislation that seems to attract support are bills that emphasize harsh enforcement measures, seek to roll back certain types of protection from enforcement such as those that apply to child immigrants from Central America or the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act or SAFE. That bill would, among other things, end DACA, give state and local police authority to enforce federal immigration laws and require more detention facilities for immigrants.

Appleby described the SAFE Act as "the Arizona law on steroids." Arizona in 2010 passed a law known as S.B. 1070, intended to crack down on immigrants without legal status who seek work, drive or fail to carry immigration papers, among other things. Much of the law was thrown out by the Supreme Court in 2012 as an infringement on the authority of the federal government.

If they pass in the House, such bills are unlikely to get enough votes in the Senate to pass, he added.

Appleby said Congress might take up legislation that tackles some of the problems of the system for employment-based visas, which is considered less controversial than the type of multilayered legislation sought by the USCCB and its allies.

In the meantime, Jeanne Atkinson, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, said its affiliated agencies are still gearing up for the possible opening of DAPA and the expansion of DACA to more groups of immigrants. Both programs offer the chance for people who are in the country illegally to register with the government, pay a fine and pass a background check. In return, the government agrees not to deport them without evidence that they have committed serious crimes and the immigrants are allowed to work legally.

Atkinson said the process of getting necessary paperwork together sometimes helps legal advisers see that immigrants have other options for legalizing their status.

Panelist Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies, said his organization's data shows that about 15 percent of people who lack legal immigration status are eligible for some type of relief from deportation, even without the DACA and DAPA programs. Those paths to legal status include family based visas, and U or T visas, for victims of serious crime or human trafficking, respectively.

Co-sponsors of the conference were the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives and the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at Catholic University.

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