Is Obama's New Immigration Policy a Law Enforcement Bonanza?

President Barack Obama speaks at the White House Summit on Early Education held in the South Court Auditorium on the White Ho
President Barack Obama speaks at the White House Summit on Early Education held in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2014. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

President Obama labeled his November 20, 2014, policy allowing some undocumented parents a short reprieve from deportation "deferred action for parental accountability." Deferred action means that the government has decided not to spend resources on deporting someone for a limited period of time. By tacking on the goal of "parental accountability," Obama warns that applicants will be carefully scrutinized for disqualifying crimes and expected to "play by the rules." What Obama did not say, but which follows from the scrutiny of any parent, is that the rest of the family may go under a microscope. "Parental accountability" could turn into "family accountability."

Under the new policy, parents may apply for deferred action if they have children who are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents (green-card holders). There is no age cap for the offspring, so they may already be adults. In any immigration application based on one person's relationship to another, the government requests information about both individuals. Birth certificates, names and addresses, and copies of green cards will go into an applicant's file. The validity of a permanent resident child's status will be checked, and immigration officers may run the child's name through multiple federal databases.

The federal government's background checks might have unforeseen consequences for a lawful permanent resident child. If a son never told his mother that he once received probation after a fraternity house brawl, for example, he could find himself in hot water with the immigration authorities. Not only could his ill behavior hurt his mother's chances of receiving deferred action, but it also could jeopardize his own immigration status.

What if only one parent applies for deferred action, because the other already has immigration status? Misdeeds of the parent with status could be exposed. An undocumented mother who was previously nervous about reporting an abusive father, for example, might feel newly empowered to seek assistance and notify the police. A U.S. citizen father who previously filed his taxes as head of household, receiving a tax break while hiding his undocumented wife, would be forced to end his gambit. Bringing one parent out of the shadows could expose another parent's shadowy behavior.

What if, on the other hand, only one parent applies because the other is barred by criminal behavior? Imagine that an undocumented father's application reveals the presence of a mother who previously was deported for a criminal offense. Their common child's birth certificate could put the authorities on notice that the mother has illegally returned to the United States.

The criminal bars for parents applying for deferred action are very strict. Even if there is no absolute bar to a parent's application, immigration officers can still deny it for "discretionary" reasons -- in other words, if something about the applicant raises concerns about her continued presence in the United States. An immigration official will initiate a criminal investigation or deportation proceedings if he believes that a parent threatens public safety.

In short, parent applications for deferred action might prove a boon for law enforcement. Only those who pass stringent background checks will have their applications granted. The application process will provide information not only about applicants, but also about their children and the second parent. The period of deferred action that parents will receive is short -- only three years. It is anyone's guess whether the program will be renewed or extended. In exchange for this short reprieve from deportation, the federal government will obtain substantial amounts of information about who is living here, and be able to take action against anyone -- whether citizen or immigrant -- whose unsavory behavior comes to light.