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White House Immigration Order Sows Confusion For Military Families

March 01, 2017 (3 min read)

USA Today Editorial Board, Feb. 28, 2017 - "Denise Leon is a native of Mexico who lives in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. Her husband is overseas, serving in the U.S. military in a remote location.

Last fall, Leon signed up for a program called Parole in Place. The program, created under the George W. Bush administration, is designed to prevent the deportation of undocumented residents whose husbands, wives, sons or daughters are fighting overseas for the United States. But recent guidelines issued by the Trump administration created confusion over the future of Parole in Place — and fear about deportation for people like Denise Leon.

"I'm even more scared now because I can't communicate with my husband ... he's so far away," she told the BBC last week. "I do everything legal. I don't have any felonies. (But) you're just hanging by a thread saying, 'What am I going to do?' "

Her despair was the result of the administration's reckless, hard-charging efforts to tighten the nation's borders, which started with last month's hastily drafted directive temporarily blocking entry of visitors from seven majority-Muslim countries and all refugees.

That order was so poorly written that visa-carrying students heading to American universities were stranded overseas, and legal residents of the United States with green cards were held up for hours at airports before allowed back into the country. Amid the chaos and confusion, administration spokesmen rushed out to say that green card holders were exempt from the order — even though the document didn't say that.

A federal appeals court blocked the order, and the administration is expected to release a revised version on Wednesday.

There was hope that after the widely respected former Marine Corps general John Kelly settled in as Homeland Security chief, such messes could be avoided. But that doesn't seem to be happening.

Last week, Kelly signed an immigration enforcement memo that swept away several exceptions to deportation. A few were kept, including the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, also known as the "dreamers" program. But Parole in Place was not explicitly exempted. Nor was another program called Deferred Action, which allows residents who wish to join the military but whose legal status is about to change — for example, because their student or work visas are about to expire — to legally remain in the U.S. until they're shipped to basic training. Once in the military, recruits are allowed to move more quickly toward obtaining citizenship.

The U.S. military loves these programs because they keep troops from worrying about loved ones getting kicked out of the country or, in the case of Deferred Action, allow the recruitment of highly skilled people. Military studies show that non-citizens, particularly Hispanics, make great soldiers. Even hard-line anti-immigration groups declined our invitation to write an opposing view defending cancellation of Parole in Place.

To the relief of people like Denise Leon, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issued statements in recent days saying Parole in Place and Deferred Action will stay in effect.

Others aren't so sure. In recent days, one Oregon family considered seeking protection under Parole in Place. The wife is an honorably discharged soldier whose service makes her family eligible for the program. She is eight months pregnant and wanted her husband, who is undocumented, to obtain legal status and pursue obtaining his green card. But now they’re frightened that Parole in Place is too tenuous, and they’ve chosen not to step forward and apply.

Without explicit written changes in the immigration order, immigration lawyers are loath to recommend that clients sign up for Parole in Place. They've "concluded that it's dangerous for people to go file their applications, because the (original) memos indicate that they're just going to round everybody up," says Margaret Stock, an immigration lawyer and retired Army colonel who is an expert on Parole in Place.

There are two ways to reassure military families.

One is to slow down the rush to exclude or deport people and get things right, in writing, the first time.

The other is for Kelly and Defense Secretary James Mattis to call a news conference, stand together before the cameras, and declare that law-abiding spouses and children of brave U.S. servicemembers have nothing to fear.

How about it, generals?"