US & Canada

Military families could face new risk for deportation under Trump rules

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Image caption Former military officer Stephanie Izaguirre and her husband are still waiting to find out if he will receive parole

A special immigration exemption made for the undocumented family members of US servicemen and women may have been cancelled this week by the Trump administration. Across the US, immigration lawyers and military members are expressing alarm and outrage.

Denise Leon met her husband William when they were children - she was eight years old and he was nine. Although their families attended the same church in the Twin Cities-area of Minnesota, Denise and William came from very different worlds.

William was a citizen, while Denise had just been brought across the border from Mexico City, Mexico, by her parents, who were searching for work. The family was living in the US illegally.

None of that mattered when Denise and William ran into each other a few years ago when she was 17. They started dating and have been together ever since.

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In 2015, William told Denise he felt a duty to serve his country and was joining the military.

"I told him I would be there for him if he needed me, and I would support him in whatever he wanted to do," says Denise.

Not long after that, they decided to get married.

It wasn't until William found out he was deploying abroad this January that the couple started worrying about Denise's immigration status.

Denise, who is 20, received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (Daca) status while still in high school, but with the Trump administration coming into office, the Daca programme's future was uncertain.

"He was worried - he didn't want to come back and me not being here," she says.

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They decided to apply for a programme called Parole in Place (Pip), which began under the George W Bush administration.

Its origins trace back to the disappearance of a US soldier named Alex Jimenez, who went missing after a roadside bomb attack in Iraq in 2007.

At the same time, his bereaved wife was in the middle of deportation proceedings. The Bush administration spared Jimenez' wife and began allowing undocumented spouses of military members to remain in the country on a case-by-case basis. Jimenez was later confirmed dead.

President Barack Obama clarified and expanded who was eligible for the policy in 2013, opening it up to all veterans, current members of the US military and National Guardsmen.

The programme allows undocumented, immediate family members like spouses, parents or children of US service members to remain in the country without fear of deportation while they apply for permanent legal status.

Without Pip, spouses like Denise would need to leave the country for 10 years before becoming eligible to re-enter and apply for a visa again.

In order to qualify for Pip, Denise had to pass a background check and she handed over her biometric information. The couple collected letters of recommendation and proof of William's service record.

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Image caption John Kelly

Denise was approved in November and William left in January.

This week, just two days after a series of memos were released by US Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly detailing how the Trump administration will be carrying out immigration enforcement over the next four years, Denise got a call from her immigration lawyer: under the guidance in the new memos, it appeared that the Parole in Place programme had been cancelled.

"I'm even more scared now because I can't communicate with my husband right now, he's so far away," Denise says through tears.

"It's so frustrating and it's so sad - I have a job, I have a house, I do everything legal, I don't have any felonies. You're just hanging by a thread saying, 'What am I going to do?'"

David Kubat is an immigration lawyer and a military veteran, and noticed the possible demise of Pip as soon as he read the new DHS memo titled, "Enforcement of the Immigration Laws to Serve the National Interest".

The memo does not specifically mention Parole in Place, but it does say that with the exception of the Daca and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans executive orders, "all existing conflicting directives, memoranda, or field guidance regarding the enforcement of our immigration laws and priorities for removal are hereby immediately rescinded".

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It further clarifies that "except as specifically provided in this memorandum, prosecutorial discretion shall not be exercised in a manner that exempts or excludes a specified class or category of aliens from enforcement of the immigration laws".

In Kubat's reading that means that Parole in Place is over. He consulted with two other experts to make sure he wasn't "off his rocker", and they agreed.

"I don't know if this is an accident," he says.

"I'm pretty sure this is something no one agrees with - I don't think Secretary Kelly intended to rescind this programme."

Messages left for DHS and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which administers the programme, were not answered.

"I think it's a big question mark right now," says Mary Giovagnoli, the former deputy assistant secretary for immigration policy for Obama's Department of Homeland Security. She is now a senior fellow with the American Immigration Council.

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Image caption Yaderlin Jimenez (left) attended her husband's burial at Arlington National Cemetary in 2009

"My guess would be that the administration is making broad statements right now and then will test the waters to see which programmes people get most upset about.

"It's a good example of why throwing the baby out with the bath water is not a good idea."

Without clarification from the government, it isn't clear what will happen to current Pip holders, ones whose green card applications are still under review, or those whose Pip applications are still pending, like Stephanie Izaguirre's husband.

Izaguirre is an immigration lawyer and a former military officer who has helped several clients with Pip.

"I didn't deploy myself, but I would say 80% of the other people I did Pip for have deployed," she says. "I think most of the people who've served in our military - they've made a lot of sacrifices that they can never be compensated for, so this is a nice token from the government - it's really nice to put that thank you into action rather than just words."

Many former military personnel who took advantage of Pip also went on to careers in law enforcement, like one client of Richard Hujber's who became a police officer in Florida. Hujber was able to get the officer's Honduran wife Pip status.

He thinks that President Trump risks alienating both the police and military communities he strove so hard to impress during the campaign.

"It would be a huge contradiction and frankly a slap in the face," says Hujber.

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Denise Leon's husband William still has many months left on his deployment.

She works full time as a receptionist and says that they were only one paycheck each away from being able to afford the application fees for her green card. She had hoped that once that is paid for she can start putting money away for nursing school.

Now nothing is certain. Her parole was dated to expire in one year and her Daca status will expire in a few months.

"I got this paper - it might be insignificant to other people, but it's my life. It's giving me hope," she says tearfully.

"My husband and I have been building up our lives little by little ... for them to one day take it all away from us, it's so unfair. It hurts."