By Laurel Brubaker Calkins
(Bloomberg) –- The Obama administration scrambled Wednesday to convince a Texas judge it shouldn’t be punished for violating his order freezing new immigration rules.
At a hearing in federal court in Brownsville, government lawyers repeatedly apologized to U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen for mistakenly issuing 2,600 work permits and then making misleading statements about it. Hanen froze the program after 26 states sued, and has set a potential Sept. 4 deadline for a decision on sanctions or a contempt citation.
“We apologize for those miscommunications and regret them,” James Gilligan, a government attorney, told Hanen. “They were inadvertent and unintended.”
“But they were repeated,” said Hanen.
Gilligan replied the government responded immediately once it realized it had misled the judge.
“We weren’t trying to hide anything from the court in the first place,” Gilligan said. The administration said it has recovered all but 12 of the 2,600 permits.
The states seek to overturn Obama’s unilateral change to U.S. immigration policy, announced in November. The initiative is designed to shelter 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation and provide them with three-year work permits.
The White House submitted multiple reports to Hanen detailing efforts to recover the permits. Agents have texted, called and e-mailed immigrants to turn in permits, with door-to-door follow up visits, the government said.
The states pressed Hanen to expand the government’s recovery campaign to include 108,000 work permits issued before Hanen’s freeze order.
Hanen, an appointee of Republican President George W. Bush, gave both sides until Sept. 4 to suggest what punishment he should impose if he decides he was intentionally misled.
“I can just do nothing,” the judge said. Or he could force immigration officials to disclose the names and locations of the 108,000 immigrants so their permits can be clawed back, either by the U.S. or the states.
Angela Colmenero, Texas’s lead lawyer, said the states prefer learning the identities and whereabouts of immigrants who may be using the permits to collect government benefits.
“The government should go back and unwind these benefits,” Colmenero said. “Every year those permits remain on the books, there are individuals seeking those benefits from the states.”
To qualify under the new program, immigrants must be the parent of an American citizen and have lived in the U.S. for at least five years, or have been brought here as children. They must also pass a criminal background check.
The White House has challenged Hanen’s freeze order in a bid to get the program up and running before Obama leaves office. The U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans hasn’t yet ruled on the request.
The case is Texas v. United States, 1:14-254, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Texas (Brownsville).