“We are completely unhappy,” Chris Crane told me recently over the phone. And he certainly hasn’t been shy about saying so. The head of the union that represents the country’s immigration enforcement officers, Crane has recently been on a crusade against the Obama administration—lambasting it for an attempt to loosen immigration enforcement that, he says, has created a “law outside the law.” Crane’s denunciations of the administration have produced an odd twist in Washington’s longstanding battle over immigration: As the Obama administration has gone about trying to liberalize our immigration policy, the people who enforce it are publicly voicing their opposition to the changes. 

To understand how we got here, you have to go back to June, when John Morton, the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, issued a memo stating that the government should exercise discretion when going after illegal immigrants. Writing in TNR at the time, Peter Schrag explained that the memo, “if it’s followed, comes close to a de-facto DREAM Act”—the legislation, long stuck in Congress, that would formally stop the deportation of certain classes of illegal immigrants, including many who are currently in college. For instance, the memo instructs ICE officials to take into account factors such as “[t]he circumstances of the person’s arrival in the United States and the manner of his or her entry, particularly if the alien came to the United States as a young child,” as well as “[t]he person’s pursuit of education in the United States.” In short, the memo was exactly the kind of step that immigration activists had long been hoping Obama would take.

Still, the memo wasn’t nearly as radical as it might have appeared. James Ziglar, who served as Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service under George W. Bush, told me that prosecutorial discretion has been a common tool in the past. “You can’t just deport everyone,” Ziglar says. “You have to exercise practical judgment.” Doris Meissner, who served as INS commissioner throughout the Clinton administration, concurs. She issued a major prosecutorial discretion memo in 2000 at the urging of several members of Congress (including Lamar Smith, who is now Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a leading proponent of stricter immigration policy). “Prosecutorial discretion has been well established for a long time, in a variety of ways,” she says. “You should use your resources to target people who threaten public safety.”

But none of this has stopped Chris Crane and his 7,600-member union from expressing fury about the memo. Crane says his case against the Morton memo is not ideological; it’s that the discretion the memo asks for is extraordinarily difficult for ICE officers to carry out. Last June, the union issued a vote of no confidence in Morton. It charged that Morton had “abandoned the Agency’s core mission” in favor of “campaigning for programs and policies related to amnesty.” Last month, at a Congressional subcommittee hearing, Crane claimed that unnamed, high-level ICE officials were going beyond the memo, verbally warning officers to avoid arresting whole groups of people and threatening dismissal if officers didn’t comply. When pressed for the names of ICE officials who had issued these orders, Crane wouldn’t name names, though he said he would provide them later. In July, when asked on Fox News if the memo essentially encouraged officers to ignore unlawful immigrants, Crane responded: “Our hands are absolutely tied.”

When I spoke to Crane, his scorn for ICE’s leadership was palpable. ICE is led, he told me, by “a bunch of attorneys who have never put handcuffs on anybody.” Where all this leaves ICE, and Obama’s attempt to liberalize immigration policy, is unclear. But for those who favor a more humane approach to immigration, it’s certainly disheartening to see the country’s immigration officers so adamantly opposing reform.

Nathan Pippenger is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.