The coronavirus is no reason to waive the rules for immigrants

The coronavirus is no reason to waive the rules for immigrants
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The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a necessary slowdown in government operations. That’s frustrating to anyone who needs the Department of Motor Vehicles, or a permit to replace a damaged hot water heater. And the unavailability of certain government services has posed challenges to working people everywhere. However, only immigrant advocates appear to be arguing that their clients deserve a free pass from applicable laws for the duration of shelter-at-home orders.

Since the beginning of the outbreak, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has fielded calls from mass migration advocates to extend immigration filing deadlines and grant automatic extensions to any foreigners whose status is about to expire. Many mainstream media outlets have carried opinion columns that claim allowing more time to file applications would “save lives” and that “USCIS policies make immigration difficult and dangerous.”

That’s nonsense. And the recent USCIS announcement directing non-immigrants to seek extensions individually is both legally correct and wise public policy. USCIS has a responsibility to protect both the American public and foreign visitors. It can only fulfill that responsibility by vetting extension requests on a case-by-case basis.

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Assertions to the contrary, made by advocates for migrants, are hyperbolic and baseless. The proof lies in the fact that nobody is making similar arguments about comparable government-administered benefits. An approved immigration application is roughly equivalent to a driver’s license. It demonstrates that the government has accorded a privilege to an individual who has satisfied a set of legal conditions and demonstrated that he or she merits an exercise of the government’s discretion. Nevertheless, no one has been howling that the United States will not survive the COVID-19 crisis as a moral and upstanding nation unless we allow anyone who wishes to do so, licensed or unlicensed, to operate a motor vehicle on our public roadways.

What’s really going on? The open-borders contingent is trying to create a back-door amnesty by capitalizing on a public health crisis. And what’s worse, they are suggesting USCIS take actions that it has no statutory authority to implement.

The Immigration and Nationality Act clearly states that aliens seeking temporary admission to the United States must establish, to the satisfaction of the Department of Homeland Security, that they are eligible for nonimmigrant status. To obtain an extension, aliens requesting additional time in the U.S. must individually establish that they either continue to remain eligible for the status in which they were admitted, or that they are qualified for a change of status. USCIS has no legal authority to confer what is, in essence, blanket amnesty without congressional authorization to do so. Anyone arguing otherwise is blinded by partisanship and willfully ignorant of U.S. immigration law.

Even more disturbing than immigration advocates asking that USCIS do something illegal is the fact that they think their request is a good idea. Every immigration program the U.S. has implemented permitting a government agency to offer blanket extensions of immigration status — rather than considering them on a case-by-case basis — has been a failure.

Take, for example, Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Enacted by Congress in 1990, the program was intended to offer temporary respite to migrants in the U.S., whether here lawfully or not, who came from countries experiencing natural disasters or political upheaval. Instead, for the majority of recipients it became the “golden ticket” to multi-decade authorization to remain in the U.S. And because the TPS legislation allowed the executive branch to give the status to broad classes of migrants, and then extend the privilege at will, administrations exploited it to pander to immigrant communities.

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 At present, TPS has been granted to more than 400,000 foreigners, coming from at least 10 countries. Many of them were given protection decades ago. Yet most of them are still here, even if the circumstances allegedly preventing them from going home were resolved long ago. For example, an estimated 86,000 Hondurans were given “temporary” permission to remain in the U.S. following 1998’s Hurricane Mitch; most of them are still here.

So-called “temporary” extensions almost never are transitory. When aliens are permitted to remain “temporarily” in the U.S., their advocates inevitably wind up asserting that since we have allowed them to stay so long, it would be cruel to ask them to leave. The longer the allegedly temporary authorization is extended, the more strident those assertions become. And that’s how short-term extensions morph into permanent ones.

If the COVID-19 epidemic has demonstrated anything, it is that the U.S. must control its borders. Public health security is national security. And border security is public health security. This is not the time for USCIS, ICE or Customs and Border Protection to be arbitrarily and unilaterally relaxing the laws Congress enacted to protect our borders and maintain our sovereignty.

From a practical standpoint, what immigration advocates seek in this instance simply isn’t necessary. The Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies, such as the Postal Service, continue to provide essential services. There is no reason that nonimmigrants with pending applications can’t mail required documents prior to deadlines, or furnish written explanations of why their personal situation merits a discretionary extension. And nothing prohibits aliens from mailing, telephoning or emailing USCIS to request an extension.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents a real threat to public health. It does not, however, furnish an excuse to foolishly abandon immigration vetting procedures that have kept us reasonably safe in the decades since the 9/11 terror attacks.

Matt O’Brien is director of research at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a nonprofit group advocating for legal immigration. He is a former assistant chief counsel with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and a former U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) division head.