DHS to Review, Possibly Halt Some Deportation Cases

A boy waves an American flag at an immigration rally held in Dallas on May Day.
A boy waves an American flag at an immigration rally held in Dallas on May Day.

The Obama administration announced today it will begin reviewing the case files of the estimated 300,000 illegal immigrants in deportation proceedings to determine which should be released from custody and possibly allowed to obtain work authorization.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security will also begin prioritizing its enforcement procedures to ensure “low-priority” illegal immigrants, those who pose no public safety risk, or who likely came to the country unlawfully only to work, do not enter the deportation process in the first place.

“We are taking steps to maximize the extent to which the folks in the deportation caseload are consistent with our highest priorities and to keep folks who are not consistent with those priorities out of the caseload in the first case,” an official who spoke on background told reporters during a conference call.

DHS officials stressed, however, that the decision does not translate to automatic legal residency or amnesty, but instead the cases will be “stayed.” They could be reopened if the government finds reason to do so. Work authorization will be determined on a case-by-case basis and is not automatic, they said.

The administration said the move is an attempt to concentrate resources on criminal aliens who pose a high risk to the country.

“In the end, this means more immigration enforcement pressure where it counts the most, and less where it doesn’t — that’s the smartest way to follow the law while we stay focused on working with the Congress to fix it,” Cecilia Muñoz, the White House director of intergovernmental affairs, said in a blog post just before the conference call.

The DHS will follow the “priority” guidelines issued in a controversial June memo by Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton. The directive said that ICE prosecutors should consider several factors — including an immigrant's criminal record, public school or college performance, how long he or she has been in the country and the current situation in the immigrant’s home country — before referring them for prosecution. Republican lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, strenuously opposed the guidelines. He authored legislation known as the HALT Act, which, if passed, would strip the president of his immigration-enforcement powers.

“The Obama administration should not pick and choose which laws to enforce,” Smith said after today's announcement.

The  move is likely to draw a similar rebuke from other Republicans, as immigration and border security are key issues in the presidential race, where GOP hopefuls are already taking aim at Obama and his border policy.

Immigrants’ rights advocates didn’t necessarily cheer today’s announcement, either. Several have begun referring to Obama as the deporter-in-chief due to the rise in cases referred for prosecutions under his leadership. The administration is on pace to deport or prosecute more illegal immigrants in three years than President George W. Bush did in two terms. Government data reflects that prosecutions for illegal entry since Obama took office are predicted to be about 132,400 by the end of 2011, surpassing the Bush administration’s eight-year total of 122,385. Prosecutions for illegal re-entry have averaged about 34,350 annually under Obama, compared to an annual average of 14,000 under Bush.

“We hope the statement today announcing review of the current caseload of victims of indiscriminate enforcement is carried forth,” said Chris Newman, the Legal Director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. “However, we have heard elegant statements of priorities before, and the problem is that those announcements have been belied the administration's actions.” The NDLON said reform would only be realized when the government ends the Secure Communities program. The controversial initiative is administered by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and compares the fingerprints of people police arrest to a federal database to determine if they are eligible for deportation.

The University Leadership Initiative, a group dedicated to promoting the DREAM Act said, “‪This decision is long over due and far less than the comprehensive immigration reform which he promised to enact within his first 100 days.”

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