In a stinging rebuke of the White House, Washington politicians and federal agencies, a former Obama administration official slammed in a law journal the U.S. government for its inaction on immigration reform and tougher-than-ever enforcement.
With uncommon candor for a once-public official, Roxana Bacon, a former top counsel for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, says that the administration -- and her erstwhile employer -- has shied away from vision and practical leadership on immigration, because of indifference and timidity, respectively. She published her comments in the March issue of Arizona Attorney, the state bar's law journal.
"Having seen U.S. immigration from the 30,000-foot level, I know that D.C.'s collective ostriching is not a viable strategy," she writes. "The reasons -- demographic, national security and economic -- are all around us."
Bacon accuses the White House and Congress of neglecting immigration, blasts the administration's strategy of pushing hard-line enforcement ahead of reform legislation and scolds the Department of Homeland Security for the mishandling -- and renewed deportation -- of Haitians fleeing the earthquake-devastated country.
In an article titled "My Year of Living Dangerously," Bacon also calls Congress irresponsible and in want of leadership for not taking on the heavy task of fixing the nation's immigration system. As a result of the issue's neglect, she argues, the hope for change has been lost for many.
In particular, the longtime immigration attorney criticizes the U.S. Senate for voting down a more narrow bill, the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, known as the DREAM Act, which would have paved a path toward citizenship for eligible undocumented young people.
"We need visionary thinking and incisive analysis grounded on economic truths to create the functioning immigration policy the nation needs," Bacon writes. "None of this is likely to come from this Congress, or from this Administration."
The former USCIS official calls on immigrant advocates, the courts and even states to prod the federal government into action and sort out the complications of immigration law while upholding fairness and constitutional rights.
Bacon, who came out of retirement at the request of the administration, resigned her chief counsel post last fall after serving for about a year. Her commentary offers a rare public critique from a former Obama administration official.
USCIS, the agency that handles legal immigration, came under fire last summer after the leak of a draft memo, co-authored by Bacon, on administrative fixes to immigration law.
Conservatives pounced on the memo, which was not adopted, as proof that the administration had plans for a back-door amnesty. Bacon dismissed the notion as "nuts" and said many of the concepts had been floated for years by the government.
Bacon is not the only former DHS official recently to call on Congress to take the reins on immigration. Tom Ridge, the first DHS secretary under President George W. Bush, said that reform critics need to "get over it."
Treading carefully around her friend, current DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, and praising the cadre of attorneys that worked in her office, Bacon saves some of her harshest criticism for her former employer.
Without naming USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas, Bacon chides the agency and DHS for not upholding vows made starting about a year ago that deportations to Haiti would be suspended and requests by Haitians for immigration benefits and relief would be handled with a "generous and open heart."
"Well, somebody must have had a heart transplant, because very soon it was back to business as usual," she writes. "[I]n the middle of January, in the midst of a cholera epidemic, deportations to Haiti resumed. Daily, we send hard-working people to Dante's hell, and no leader in the Administration even seems embarrassed, much less angry or sad."
She paints USCIS, the "runt of the immigration litter" compared to sister agencies Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as timid, having stayed underground instead of issuing "visionary policy statements or practical field directives."
The other two agencies, in turn, "went into overdrive to detain more people, remove more people, and exercise less discretion than at any time in our nation's modern history," she writes. "Progressive became regressive, and the promised helping hand had a serious slap to it."
As far as the DREAM Act goes, Bacon asserts that to punish young people who have excelled but were brought to the country as infants or children by denying them the chance to legalize is "like jailing a one-year-old for not wearing a seatbelt."
Faced with the choice of setting young adults up for failure or maximizing their contribution as DREAM Act candidates, she laments: "Remarkably, we opted for failure."
DHS spokesman Adam Fetcher's emailed response to Roxana Bacon's statements on the department's actions regarding Haiti:
In the extended aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, the Department of Homeland Security has remained fully committed to upholding our responsibility to assist individuals affected by this tragedy using tools available under the law.
Three days after the disaster, Secretary Napolitano announced the designation of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haitian nationals who were in the United States as of Jan. 12, 2010. This designation remains in effect through July 22, 2011, and currently more than 60,000 Haitian nationals with TPS reside in our country.
In addition to granting TPS, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has also made some temporary relief measures available to nationals of Haiti, as it relates to change or extension of nonimmigrant status, advance parole, employment authorization for F-1 students, processing of immigrant petitions for children of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, among others. As part of this, USCIS has granted more than 90 percent of all fee waiver requests for Haitians seeking these and other immigration benefits. We continue to consider any application for discretionary benefits on a case-by-case basis.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) resumed the removal of criminal aliens in coordination with the Government of Haiti and consistent with our domestic immigration enforcement priorities. ICE is legally required to repatriate criminal aliens to their country of origin or release them into U.S. communities if their repatriation is not reasonably foreseeable.
The moratorium on removals to Haiti therefore meant that ICE was legally required to release detained Haitian nationals into U.S. communities. Unfortunately, a significant number of the detained Haitian nationals had committed serious crimes and their release posed significant threats to the American public. As a result, after a year of suspended removals, the U.S. government made the difficult decision to restart removals of a limited group of Haitian nationals to ensure the safety of our local communities.
DHS is working closely with the Department of State and the Government of Haiti to ensure that the resumption of removals is conducted in a safe, humane manner with minimal disruption to ongoing rebuilding efforts. The resumption of repatriations of criminal aliens does not apply in any way to aliens with a pending TPS application, aliens who have been granted TPS, or aliens who are otherwise present in the United States in a lawful status.
The Department of Homeland Security continues to provide all appropriate humanitarian protections to individuals who found themselves here in the United States in this extraordinary situation, and will continue to approach each case consistent with the humanitarian response taken since the earthquake.
Andrew Becker covers immigration and the federal judiciary at the Center for Investigative Reporting, an independent nonprofit investigative news organization. His reporting has appeared in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio and New York Times.