The Obama administration has been holding behind-the-scenes talks to determine whether the Department of Homeland Security can unilaterally grant legal status on a mass basis to illegal immigrants, a former Bush administration official who spoke with at least three people involved in those talks told FoxNews.com.
The issue was raised publicly by eight Republican senators who wrote to the White House on Monday to complain that they had heard the administration was readying a "Plan B" in case a comprehensive immigration reform bill cannot win enough support to clear Congress.
The White House would not confirm or deny the claim. It's unclear what section of the illegal immigrant population such a move would target. But the former Bush official said the discussions are real.
"The administration at the very minimum is studying legal ways to legalize people without having to go through any congressional debate about it," the source said, calling the senators' claim credible. "Whether somebody pulls the trigger on that, that's another issue."
The senators -- Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa; Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; David Vitter, R-La.; Jim Bunning, R-Ky.; Saxby Chambliss, Ga.; Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.; James Inhofe, R-Okla.; and Thad Cochran, R-Miss. -- claimed in their letter that the administration was looking at extending what is known as deferred action or parole to millions of illegal aliens in the United States.
The former official said it's unclear what specific avenues the administration is considering, but that one potentially feasible option would be to use either deferred action or parole to legalize at once the millions of immigrants who have overstayed their visas -- not necessarily those who crossed the border illegally. The Department of Homeland Security estimated last year that 10.8 million undocumented residents live in the United States -- the Pew Hispanic Center, which has a similar count, estimated in 2006 that at least 4 million of them overstayed their visas.
Deferred action and parole would give illegal immigrants the ability to seek a work permit and temporary legal status.
Those two tools are usually used on a case-by-case basis. The former official said any move to broaden that authority and use it on a mass basis would be "woefully inappropriate," though politically brilliant.
The Republican senators who wrote to President Obama expressed a similar view. They wrote that any unilateral action would "further erode the American public's confidence in the federal government and its commitment to securing the borders and enforcing the laws already on the books."
The discussions of blanket legalization come in the middle of several concurrent and heated debates over illegal immigration. The recently signed immigration law in Arizona has divided the country, with some states trying to replicate the state's tough legislation and other jurisdictions boycotting the state in protest. The Obama administration plans to file a court challenge.
Democrats, meanwhile, have been trying to round up support for an overhaul bill in Congress.