DISCUSSIONS of immigration policy and reform in the U.S. over the last 40 years almost always focus on congressional gridlock and inaction. Despite the salience of immigration in public opinion polls and innumerable legislative proposals, Congress largely has shied away from the issue, passing no comprehensive immigration reform legislation since the early 1990s.
With Congress stuck at an immigration impasse for years, presidential administrations from both parties have taken crucial actions that regulate both inflows of new immigrants and the status of immigrants already in the U.S. Executive actions on immigration have a long history, and may have wide-reaching and unexpected (or unintended) consequences.
It is not unusual for presidents in the post-World War II era to deploy blanket protections for immigrant groups facing hardship. For instance, with Congress unwilling to act, Harry Truman issued executive grants of relief for groups targeted and displaced by Nazi Germany. John F. Kennedy extended and expanded protections to Cubans due to the Cuban Revolution. Jimmy Carter suspended deportation proceedings for 250,000 Silva letter-holders in 1977 and Ronald Reagan provided a similar protection for 200,000 Nicaraguan refugees in 1987.
George H.W Bush continued this tradition of shielding individuals from deportation by extending Reagan's "family fairness" policy to 100,000 spouses in 1990, and Pres. Bill Clinton similarly halted deportation proceedings for 40,000 Haitians in 1997 over concerns about political instability in that island nation.
These actions, when applied to all noncitizens present in the U.S., are a form of relief called Extended Voluntary Departure (EVD). Unlike refugee status--which, as defined by the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention, provides protection to individuals fearing persecution--EVD provides blanket coverage to all noncitizens present in the U.S. in the event that their country experiences a natural disaster, civil conflict, or other humanitarian crisis.
The application of EVD is optional: in practice, the Secretary of State makes a case to the Attorney General that the conditions in a particular country would place returning foreign nationals at risk. The Attorney General, in turn, issues what amounts to a form of prosecutorial discretion that directs immigration authorities not to pursue deportation proceedings against individuals from the country in question.
Between 1960-90, EVD was granted to...