The Trump administration wants to scale back a program that protects undocumented family members of active-duty troops from being deported, according to attorneys familiar with those plans.
The attorneys are racing to submit applications for what is known as parole in place after hearing from the wives and loved ones of deployed soldiers who have been told that option is "being terminated."
The protections will only be available under rare circumstances, the lawyers said they've been told.
"It's going to create chaos in the military," said Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney who represents recruits and veterans in deportation proceedings. "The troops can't concentrate on their military jobs when they're worried about their family members being deported."
Officials with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which offers parole in place as a "discretionary option," declined to discuss questions about the ending of the program.
Defense Department and military service officials didn't immediately respond to questions about the program.
Parole in place
The program the Trump administration wants to curtail does not protect all immigrants facing removal proceedings from being deported.
It specifically allows military family members who have come to the country illegally — and can't adjust their immigration status — to stay in the U.S. temporarily. A spouse who overstayed a visa, for example, would not be protected under the program.
The original objective of the policy was to minimize disruption to the life of a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine whose family member might have been subject to deportation.
Parole in place enables a soldier serving in Afghanistan, for instance, not to worry that a spouse at home who entered the U.S. illegally might be thrown out of the country while the soldier is deployed.
The spouse has the ability to receive "parole" within the U.S. and apply for a green card — unlike someone without that privilege, who might be deported and required to wait for years to apply.
It wasn't immediately clear how many people are using this now or have in the past.
New battle within broader immigration war
The procedures are changing as the U.S. government ramps up enforcement proceedings, including against veterans and their family members — sometimes in ways that violate the government's own procedures.
For example, a federal watchdog reported earlier this month that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not follow its own policies on deporting former service members since 2013, which included during the Obama administration.
Immigrants have always served in the military and often become citizens. Nearly 130,000 troops have been naturalized from more than 30 foreign countries since Oct. 1, 2001.
Service doesn't necessarily guarantee citizenship for troops, but it can offer them a path to that, as well as some benefits for people related to those serving, such as the parole privilege.
Activists scramble before end to privilege
One government lawyer is urging immigration lawyers to act quickly before the program is officially terminated next month.
"I would advise clients that if they are eligible for [parole in place] to submit it ASAP," a government lawyer warned other attorneys in a message obtained by NPR, adding later: "Wish there was better news to share. Big take-away is that no group is 'safe' any longer."
Carlos Luna, founder and president of a green card veteran chapter of the League of Latin American Citizens, said the ending of parole in place is yet another example of what he called the Trump administration's "war against immigrants."
"There are less and less opportunities for these people serving the country and their veteran family to go through the 'legal channels' and stay here in the country, which for many is the only place they've ever known," Luna said.
Luna cited the Trump administration's decision this year to close all of its international field offices and the fact that military recruits now must serve 180 days of active duty before becoming eligible to apply for naturalization — unless they're in a combat zone.
Previously they only had to wait a day.
Separating the link between service and citizenship
The Trump administration has also made it harder for some immigrants to enlist in the military with hopes their service would lead to an expedited path to citizenship.
Last year, the Pentagon began discharging immigrants recruited under a special program started by President George W. Bush.
The program, known as Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, or MAVNI, aimed at bringing in medical specialists, fluent speakers of challenging languages and other special skills.
Between 2008 and 2016, 10,400 individuals enlisted in the U.S. military through the MAVNI program, according to Defense Department data.
A federal judge in Seattle later ordered the Defense Department to stop discriminating against naturalized citizens who volunteered to serve in the military under the program.
The White House hasn't addressed the parole-in-place changes specifically, but information about them is reaching immigration attorneys against the backdrop of the ongoing political war over the southern border.
Trump, who has made immigration and the border his signature issue, urged Congress on Wednesday to close what he called the "loopholes" that remain.
Stock, the immigration attorney, meanwhile said she thought it might be corrosive to military readiness if troops overseas must begin worrying that their family members back home might be deported.
"I don't think people really understand we have a global military that has a multitude of immigration problems because of the fact that we deploy immigrants overseas all the time and we recruit immigrants and we recruit U.S. citizens who are married to immigrants and have immigrant parents," Stock said. "The military is very international, and if you got rid of everybody in the military who had a connection to a foreigner — you wouldn't have anyone in the military."
NOEL KING, BYLINE: The Trump administration might be scaling back a program that protects some family members of active duty troops from being deported. NPR's White House reporter Franco Ordoñez has exclusive reporting on this developing story. He's in the studio with us now.
Good morning, Franco.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: So we're talking about an established government program. What does it do exactly?
ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. It's a program called parole in place. It essentially provides temporary protection for immigrant families of active-duty soldiers in the military. You can imagine if someone is fighting overseas in Afghanistan or elsewhere, you don't want them to be worried about their spouse in the United States potentially being deported. I probably should note that this does not apply to all immigrants or all families of military officials - military active-duty members. If you overstay a visa, for example, this does not apply. It is specific to family members who have entered the country illegally and cannot change their status.
KING: And it sounds like there are specific reasons for it. So why are you learning that the Trump administration might withdraw or end or change this program?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, we've heard from lawyers of people who are dealing with this situation on behalf of their clients. And they're essentially racing to get their applications in before it's ending. We heard from a lawyer - one government lawyer who warned other attorneys to act quickly before the program is officially ended. And I'm reading from the message that we obtained - (reading) I would advise clients that if they are eligible for parole in place to submit it ASAP. They continue to go on - (reading) wish there was better news to share. Big takeaway is that no group is safe any longer.
KING: Do we know how many people are using this parole in place program, how many troops this might affect?
ORDOÑEZ: We don't know exactly how many people are using the status or how many troops it affects. But clearly, the Trump administration has tightened immigration policy across the board, and it includes policies connected with the military.
KING: I mean, how would this affect military families? Immigrants are a big part of the United States military. You imagine, as we've said, that a program like this is in place for a reason. What could be the ripple effect? What are attorneys telling you? What are families telling you?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, we know that there are troops currently being deployed overseas who are dealing with loved ones who are potentially going to be put in removal proceedings. It is very disruptive. This impacts a lot of families. Immigration has been part of the military since basically Day 1.
ORDOÑEZ: They are weaved into the fabric of the military. The United States recruits immigrants for the armed forces. They recruit spouses of immigrants. They recruit the children of immigrants. There are nearly 130,000 troops who have actually been naturalized from over 30 foreign countries while in the military since October 1 of 2001.
KING: Those are huge numbers. When could this policy actually be withdrawn? What have you learned there?
ORDOÑEZ: We're being told from the attorneys that they have been told that it could be ended by next month. So as I mentioned, there is a race to get these applications in. The expectation is that if they can get them in, that they will be grandfathered. That may be perhaps more of a hope. But really, word is just starting to get out in the immigrant and immigrant lawyer community. They will fight this issue, they tell me. But right now they're just trying to get more bits of information about it, learn who their allies may be - allies in the community but also inside the government - and try to come up with a good strategy.
KING: NPR's Franco Ordoñez with some exclusive reporting.
Franco, thanks so much.
ORDOÑEZ: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.