Changes To Immigration Policy: Fairness Or Phony Amnesty?

The Obama administration is planning to review about 300,000 illegal immigration cases and prioritize deportations of undocumented individuals with criminal records. Those who haven't committed crimes may be allowed to apply for work permits in the U.S. Host Michel Martin discusses the new policy rule with Rep. Charles Gonzales (D-Texas), who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, student Mario Perez, and his attorney Sarah Monty.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program, we'll head into the Beauty Shop to talk about some of the latest headlines. We'll talk about the latest in the case of former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn who, of course, was accused of sexually assaulting a hotel maid. And we might talk about Kim Kardashian's lavish wedding this weekend. That's coming up.

But first, we want to talk about changes in federal immigration policy. The Department of Homeland Security recently announced a new priority that it will focus its deportation efforts on illegal immigrants who pose a threat to national security or public safety.

This comes at a time when there's a heavy backlog of deportation cases. Some 300,000 of them are pending in immigration court. Officials say they'll be reviewed case by case to determine who among those individuals actually warrants removal. Those illegal immigrants who were facing deportation, although they did not have a criminal record, will be allowed to stay in the country and apply for a work permit.

We wanted to talk about what this all means, so we've called, once again, Congressman Charles Gonzales. He's a Democrat from Texas. He's chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

We're also joined by Mario Perez. He's a college student in Texas who we met before when he was arrested after a traffic stop. It turned out he had unpaid parking tickets, but he was slated for deportation. And we are also going to meet with one of his attorneys, Sarah Monty.

Welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.

Representative CHARLES GONZALES: We're glad to be here.

MARIO PEREZ: Thank you.

SARAH MONTY: Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Congressman Gonzales, I want to start with you because the administration had said previously that it was focusing its deportation efforts on those who pose a threat to public safety, those with a criminal background.

So what is actually different here?

GONZALES: Well, the administration has been very consistent. You're exactly right and limited resources, so what do you do with those? And obviously, as you already stated, and that is to focus where you're going to do the most good and protect us from those individuals that pose a threat to society. That's always been the constant.

The only thing that we ever asked as far as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus was to review policies that were impacting individuals that did not fall under that category, and that's what you're seeing today.

The administration has also been very consistent to say, we cannot change the law. I do not intend on changing the law. I'm going to work within existing law and within the discretionary authority that is granted me as president of the United States, and that's what you're seeing now being implemented by the secretary, Napolitano of Homeland Security.

MARTIN: Clearly, the kinds of the cases that have really come to public attention are cases like Mario Perez, who was brought here when he was five years old by his parents. Certainly, he wasn't in a position to participate in the decision. They are here without proper authorization. He discovered when he was in - when? Mario, you were applying for college, right?

PEREZ: Right. I was 18.

MARTIN: You were 18 years old, applying for colleges, high school graduate, done everything you were supposed to do and then that's when you discovered that you didn't have a Social Security number. And then, as we discussed, your case got a lot of attention because your fraternity brothers in the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity rallied to your cause when they realized that you were in jeopardy.

What's the status of your case, to your understanding?

PEREZ: To my understanding, we're still within the appeal process and we're still waiting.

MARTIN: Sarah Monty, can you shed some light on that?

MONTY: Yes. We had originally requested deferred action on Mario's case. We believed that it was a case that merited a deferred action. By deferred action, that would mean that his removal would be postponed and he would eligible for employment authorization.

That request was declined and we were actually encouraged to just pursue the appeals process and that is where we're at. And I should mention that we have, in this appeals process, you know, 90 percent of all cases are never challenged and Mario's case is one of fewer than eight percent of people who have the resources to actually appeal a deportation order and that's where Mario is right now.

MARTIN: So he's in limbo. Is that a fair way to put it? He's in limbo.

MONTY: That's exactly where he's at. Yes.

MARTIN: So, you know, Mr. Gonzales, the administration has said that it's going to continue to address these cases on a case-by-case basis. A lot of people would like him to look at cases like Mario's where he is a student. He's pursuing his education. His only crime, as it were, is being in the country without authorization and not paying some parking tickets, which presumably, he's paid by now.

So how does this help matters, how does this help this backlog if all these cases are going to be handled case by case, anyway? I don't understand how this addresses the backlog issue.

GONZALES: My understanding - I don't speak for the administration or the secretary of Homeland Security, but my understanding is still case by case. They are not going to be carving out and establishing a new category under law, but rather they would be viewing Mario's case as an individual case, and I'm sure Sarah is already looking at what these new regulations and guidelines will mean for her client, and just to simply bring to the attention of those appropriate authorities that are reviewing the case for prosecution and such to the fact that the Department of Homeland Security does not wish to prosecute this case at the present time, but rather put him at the end of the docket or whatever the process is going to entail and concentrate, again, on those that pose a clear danger to our national security or to society at large.

That's what's going to happen, but the fact that you are getting the directive from the very top will govern the actions of those individuals that would be processing Mario's case. So I see some good things happening, especially Mario because he comes under what we refer to as the dream kid category, which is going to be, to me, the easiest to identify and the easiest to say, this is not going to be a priority.

MARTIN: But Congressman, is it true that, if people are then taken off the removal list, they are then eligible for work authorization, for a green card? If that's the case, why isn't this amnesty?

GONZALES: It is not amnesty because, if you think in terms of what's happening to Mario, he's already paid a great price. He is still in the system. He is not immune and he's not excused from any of this previous action and what we're hoping is, eventually, we will change the law that will allow him a pathway to citizenship.

And there is going to be a price to be paid, unfortunately, even though he had nothing to do with coming into the United States and making a conscious choice to violate the laws of the United States.

But that's a DREAM Act kid and I think we can do a whole lot with Mario, but we have so many millions more that come under a different category and that we're hoping to address their situations so that they will continue to be contributing members of American society, there's assimilation and we mainstream.

But I would say that Mario's case right now probably has never looked as good, in my opinion, short of changing the law, which we're attempting to do by the introduction of the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We were just speaking with Congressman Charles Gonzales. He's the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and we're talking about the Obama administration's proposal to change its priority for deportation to those who pose a threat to national security or public safety.

I'm joined also by college student Mario Perez, who was arrested after a traffic stop, despite the fact that he was in school and his fraternity brothers at the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity rallied to his cause. We're also speaking with his attorney, Sarah Monty.

So Mario, how are your spirits? How are you doing?

PEREZ: My spirits - I always try to keep an optimistic view on everything. Even when I receive bad news, I try to, you know, take the good out of it and be like, you know, there's always hope because I know there's somebody out there fighting for my cause.

MARTIN: Are you able to stay in school? Were you able to finish your studies?

PEREZ: Yes. I'm still currently in school. I actually start back school a week from today.

MARTIN: What difference do you think it made to have your fraternity brothers bring attention to your case?

PEREZ: Oh, I love my brothers. Like, as soon as, like, a call was made, they were on it. Like, the next day, they were already working on it. They had a meeting like, how are we going to do this? How are we going to bring attention to him?

MARTIN: And Sarah Monty, you were telling us that, in fact, this is rather unusual for Mario to have the level of representation he has, to have the level of...

MONTY: It is.

MARTIN: It's unusual. Tell us about that, if you would.

MONTY: It is unusual and he is very fortunate. You know, and again, the memos for prosecutorial discretion have - there's about 13 of them that have been published since 2000 and so this is not a new notion. And within immigration, it's, you know, very well documented.

But one of the - what we're looking at is for cases where there will be a public outcry, cases that are of public interest. And in fashioning his case - and I should say that the people, his fraternity, there was a nonprofit center, different nonprofit centers, our office, there was a group, an army behind Mario and it was done very specifically in trying to let people know exactly what his plight was and how unfair our laws are because here in the United States of America, we are creating a caste system where people are actually born into - they have the misfortune of being born into a situation of having no way out.

MARTIN: Well, he wasn't born into it. He was brought here as a five year old.

MONTY: He was born into that decision. He was born into that decision.

MARTIN: OK. But tell me more about your view of why this is unfair, particularly if you could narrow the focus to this whole question of the removal proceedings. As I understand it, you're saying that this is a very kind of strange position to be in, that you can only be eligible for release if you are already in removal proceedings, if you've already been targeted for removal? Is that what I...

MONTY: You must have - there actually must be a final order of removal, so that means that, in order to get any relief, what you must do is you must be unfortunate enough to actually be put into removal.

You know, there are hundreds of thousands of people that are in the same situation as Mario who are just waiting and looking at Mario's case, trying to see, you know, is there a chance for them to aspire to - not a green card, maybe an employment authorization.

MARTIN: An employment authorization is not the same as a green card?

MONTY: No. Not at all, not at all.

MARTIN: OK. But I want to ask you the same question I asked Mr. Gonzales.

How is this policy, the stated policy difference, really any different from what the administration said before?

MONTY: Actually, I don't believe it is.

MARTIN: You don't believe it is?

MONTY: I don't believe it is different. I think that there was one prong, and that is the creation of a committee, a high level committee, which would be reviewing these cases, case-by-case basis.

There was a memo put out in March, which actually stated that there would be review of these cases, so at least, you know, I guess we're in the age of the committees and this committee will be saving immigrants.

But, again, how will they do that with the resources that they have, especially, you know, when we have more and more people flooding the system because of our policy with secure communities and the silent raids that are happening?

MARTIN: So Mr. Gonzales, forgive me. I do want to press the question again.

GONZALES: Sure.

MARTIN: How is this really any different? And there are those to bring politics into it who would argue that, really, all this is is a public relations move, aimed at assuaging the concerns of the Latino community who believe that this administration has not focused sufficiently on the immigration issue.

So tell me, really, again, is this really any different?

GONZALES: Let me put it this way. I think when Congressman Luis Gutierrez, whose devotion and commitment to immigration reform is unquestioned, comes out and views the latest pronouncement by the administration as significant, I think you can take that to the bank.

And I know that Sarah's making reference to a committee that will be advising Immigration and Custom Enforcement Director Morton. That is one thing that's going on, but what transpired last week at the announcement by Secretary Napolitano and the president, is something, even in addition to that, and, in my opinion, even more significant. It goes beyond secure communities. It goes beyond all of that.

What we're talking about, now, is still a case by case treatment, but nevertheless specific guidelines that will set the priorities. That has not really been done before with any specificity that we are now going to have into the system.

I think that's an incredible advancement and, you know, there are so many other things. I think Sarah said, look, there's only a small percentage of individuals that are brought into this system that require an attorney. Well, guess what? An incident now will occur where an individual, in my opinion, even without a lawyer, if they fall into certain criteria, will not be deported, may still be in the system. I'm not saying that they're escaping the system. They are going to be in the system.

The other thing about Mario, now. What makes the dream kids unconscionable, is that there's no other area of law where a child is held accountable for the acts of a parent. Mario was not an adult when the decision was made to violate the laws of the United States by coming here illegally.

MARTIN: Okay. I'm going to give him the last word, too, then. And Mario, you only have about a minute left.

For those who argue at the end of the day, if those who were brought here without proper authorization don't have a right to stay here, what would you say to them? What would you want them to know? Very briefly.

PEREZ: Well, basically, like I said before, I know I'm a very optimistic person, and when I was detained, I did realize that the system can be unfair because I was detained with drug dealers, people who actually committed serious crimes. And I was just like, I'm in the United States trying to get a, you know, education.

So when I actually got out and started meeting all these people, I was like, I have a lot of people fighting for me, so the only thing I can say is stay optimistic and as long as we have somebody fighting for us, there's hope.

MARTIN: All right. Mario Perez is a college student. We met him earlier when his fraternity brothers rallied to fight his deportation.

We were also joined by his attorney, Sarah Monty. She was with us from member station KUHF in Houston. Mario is with us from Nacogdoches.

And also with us, Charles Gonzales. He's a Democrat from Texas. He's the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. He was with us from San Antonio.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

GONZALES: Thank you.

PEREZ: Thank you.

MONTY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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