President Donald Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigrants is having the dangerous, unanticipated effect of putting additional stress on U.S. troops who have relied on a little-known program to protect their undocumented family members from deportation while the military personnel are deployed to warzones.
“Parole in place” reprieves, known inside the military as PIP, are meant to keep deployed service members focused by easing any worry about the safety of undocumented spouses and immediate family back home. Defense officials say the program is crucial to alleviating unrelated stress on the battlefield by allowing troops’ family members to live in the U.S. without fear of being deported and to apply for a green card without having to leave the country.
But as immigration arrests spike under the Trump administration’s promised crackdown on people in the country illegally, immigration lawyers have begun warning their military clients that they can no longer rely on the PIP program.
“The concern is that it hasn’t been endorsed by the administration, and there are several initiatives that might sweep this into the broader reworking of the immigration system,” said David Kubat, an immigration lawyer and military veteran who serves in the National Guard in St. Paul, Minn..
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Kubat said the program affects thousands of military families but doesn’t get the same attention as other special status programs, such as the DACA program that protects people brought to America illegally as children.
“It helps them deploy without being afraid,” said Kubat. “Having your parents, your spouse and your children in a secure status is critical, especially in a stressful environment where you might not speak to them for weeks.”
1.5 million Military veterans born in the U.S. with a parent who was an immigrant
Many military family members applying for PIP received calls from their immigration attorneys in February, after Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly issued a memo on implementing Trump’s executive order on immigration. Under the new guidance, the program appeared to have been scrapped. Kelly’s memo stated that with the exception of the Obama-era deferred action policy "all existing conflicting directives, memoranda, or field guidance regarding the enforcement of our immigration laws and priorities for removal are hereby immediately rescinded.”
In the following weeks, spokespeople for the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said that the PIP program still existed and the language did not apply to it. A spokeswoman for USCIS confirmed to McClatchy that as of July, the program is still accepting applications under the existing policy.
But there has been no official word from the White House that the protection for families of deployed military will stay in place as the president considers changes to all special status programs. Immigration and military advocates say they are wary of relying on the word of department spokespeople, given the widening crackdown and news that even DACA is now at risk of being eliminated.
Immigration attorneys in California, Florida, Minnesota and Texas told McClatchy that they have been able to get military families’ applications approved since the Trump administration’s new guidance. However, the uncertainty about the program’s future and fear of being caught up in the widening net of ICE arrests has had a significant dampening effect.
Indeed, attorneys say they are seeing more PIP applications denied since Trump took office.
“I’m seeing a lot more denials under than we saw under the Obama administration, and many people are afraid to apply now because of all the mixed signals from the administration.” said Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney and retired Army officer who designed the military’s program for immigrant recruits.
Many people are afraid to apply now because of all the mixed signals from the administration.
Margaret Stock, Alaska immigration attorney and retired Army officer
The practice of allowing undocumented spouses of deployed military service members to stay in the United States began on a case-by-case basis under President George W. Bush. When “parole in place” was established in 2013, at the request of the Pentagon, it was billed as a military readiness initiative.
Critics slammed the program as a “back door to amnesty” and “amnesty by drips” to people in the U.S. illegally based on their relationship with military service members.
“We should not be so naïve as to think that each scenario involving parole-in-place will be a soldier marrying a harmless illegal alien, perhaps one brought here as a child, who is “practically American,” wrote Dan Cadman of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for lower immigration levels, in a review of the program.
Today, defense officials call it critical to the safety of deployed personnel. And program advocates say its potential as a recruitment tool is being overlooked as they U.S. Army is forced to hand out larger and larger enlistment bonuses to incentivize native-born Americans to enlist. (In February, the Army said it was offering bonuses worth up to $40,000, or enlistment contracts as short as two years, in an effort to recruit 6,000 more soldiers than it had planned for 2017.)
“If you’re not scared to identify your mother as someone here illegally, if the Army goes and helps you with the biggest fear that you have in your life, you’re going to have a loyalty above and beyond raising your right hand and saying some words,” Kubat said.
The parole in place program affects an increasingly vital source of military recruitment — the children of immigrants. Of the 18.8 military veterans nationwide, more than 1.5 million were born in the U.S. with a parent who was an immigrant, according to an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute. Approximately 511,000 foreign-born military veterans lived in the U.S. in 2016. The largest group of those, 83,000, were born in Mexico. Immigrants serving in the military are less likely than their U.S.-born counterparts to leave the military before completing a tour of duty, and 20 percent of all Medal of Honor recipients were born abroad, according to a report by the Center for American Progress.
It's common decency and common sense: how could a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine focus on their duty, when their spouse or child could be deported at any time?
Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas
In some cases, like one referred to Stock by a frustrated lawyer in North Carolina trying to get PIP for the father of a U.S. Marine, local offices that process PIP applications seem to “just be sitting on them” and refusing to process valid applications, the attorney said. This has become an urgent concern since ICE arrests have increased by more than 40 percent.
“It’s having a huge impact on U.S. citizens worried to enlist if they have undocumented family members,” Stock said. “The military is going to have a recruitment problem of massive proportions if people don’t feel their families are safe and secure.”
Jose Diaz, a 35-year-old father of two in St. Paul, Minn., received “Parole in Place” because his Hawaii-born wife served in the U.S. Air Force.
“Without this program I would have had to go back to Mexico and wait for years,” said Diaz, who immigrated from Morelos in 1996, in a Spanish interview. “It would not only have been complicated but incredibly expensive, having to leave everything paid for here and also bring money to live in another country.”
With a 3-year old daughter and another baby on the way, Diaz said he and his wife would also have had to handle a painful family separation.
“Being able to stay here made all the difference,” he said. “This has been a very, very important program for my family and others, it would be a real shame if the government cut it off.”