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Biden's limits on ICE offered hope. But immigrant advocates say he's broken promises

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President Biden came to office promising big changes on immigration policy. And he can point to some victories - strict new limits on which immigrants' authorities should arrest and deport, for example. But immigrant advocates say the administration is not always following through on promises. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: When President Biden was elected, Carol (ph) had high hopes.

CAROL: I was praying for him to be the president. Like, when they announced, I was so happy.

ROSE: Carol lives in Columbus, Ohio. She came to the U.S. from Africa on a student visa more than 20 years ago and never left. She and her husband have four kids - all U.S. citizens. They have good jobs, own a house and pay their taxes. But Carol knows it could all end if she's deported.

CAROL: If my kids are playing sports, I'll be sitting in a corner crying 'cause I don't know if next year, I'll see him play. So it's like you live day by day. You don't know what will happen, yeah.

ROSE: Carol asked us not to use her last name or say where she's from because her immigration case is still pending. She and her husband have been seeking asylum in the U.S. for years, so they got excited when immigration authorities released new guidance last year, laying out in detail who should be a priority for deportation and who should not. Her lawyer wrote to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, requesting what's known as prosecutorial discretion. That's where prosecutors agree to put the case on hold or drop it altogether.

INNA SIMAKOVSKY: If there's anyone that deserves prosecutorial discretion, this is the case.

ROSE: Inna Simakovsky is Carol's lawyer. On paper, she says Carol and her husband are exactly the kind of immigrants who should qualify for discretion. But the answer was a terse no.

SIMAKOVSKY: We're a year in, and it's not working. And it's not right. I just want them to actually do the right thing and do what they promised.

ROSE: There's mounting frustration among immigrant advocates at what they see as a growing list of broken promises from the Biden administration. Ambitious plans to overhaul the immigration system have stalled, while Trump-era restrictions on asylum are still in place at the Southern border. That includes the public health order known as Title 42 that allows authorities to quickly expel most migrants and the return of a policy that forces some asylum seekers to remain in Mexico until their immigration hearings. Immigrant advocates hope that ICE's new enforcement priorities would be a bright spot. But even here, they say the administration is falling short of its own rhetoric. Here's Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announcing the new policy last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: The guidance recognizes the incontrovertible fact that the majority of undocumented individuals have contributed so significantly to our communities for years.

ROSE: ICE insists it is keeping its promises. Immigration arrests in the interior of the country are way down. The agency did not comment on Carol's case, but a senior administration official did agree to talk on background. That official said that about 70% of requests for prosecutorial discretion have been approved. Though immigration lawyers are skeptical, they say the guidance is being applied inconsistently.

MICHAEL KAPLAN: The language coming from Washington is not at all the actual practice that we're experiencing in Boston.

ROSE: Michael Kaplan is a lawyer representing two Central American women who won their asylum cases. When the new guidance came out, he asked ICE to drop its appeals. He also got a no.

KAPLAN: Maybe I'm naive. I still have hope that maybe I'll win the lottery with it. But some attorneys are really finding it pointless.

ROSE: The senior administration official we interviewed disputes that. The official says it's inevitable that immigration lawyers would be frustrated with the outcome in a handful of cases. ICE has more than 1,200 lawyers nationwide. The official says they are very busy, and it may take some time for all of them to get up to speed on the new policy. But some immigrants say they can't afford to wait.

MIGUEL ARAUJO: (Through interpreter) My life will end when I return to Mexico.

ROSE: Miguel Araujo says he was forced to flee Mexico more than 40 years ago because his work exposing collusion between the government and drug cartels made him a target. His lawyers admit his case isn't perfect. There's a drug conviction in his past, and the government of Mexico has made it clear that they want him back. But Araujo, who is 73, has spent more than half his life in Northern California, where he owns a restaurant, and says he can't understand why the Biden administration is still fighting to deport him.

MAYORKAS: (Through interpreter) It's very confusing. On one hand, they want to be our friends and extend the hand of a friend. And with the other, they're beating us down, and they're sending us back.

ROSE: Immigrant advocates across the country say they are just as confused. Joel Rose, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.