Reporting from Washington — The Obama administration will review immigration cases in Baltimore and Denver with an eye toward freezing deportations of illegal residents who have no criminal records and expanding the program nationwide.
The elderly, children who have been in the country more than five years, students who came to the U.S. under the age of 16 and are enrolled in a college degree program, and victims of domestic violence are among those whose deportations could be put on hold under the test program, which begins Dec. 4 and could be broadened in January.
Administration officials say the goal is to focus enforcement on deporting people who have committed crimes. But the effort also has a political context. Obama has been criticized by Latino activists for deporting a record number of illegal immigrants even as the president has publicly called for reforms. With Congress unwilling to approve immigration legislation, administration officials have been looking for actions they can take on their own.
There are more than 300,000 pending immigration cases in 59 courts across the country. The new program could halt removal proceedings for thousands of immigrants who have no criminal records, have not previously been deported, and have never lied on an official form. Fewer than 20% of the cases in immigration courts involve people with criminal records beyond immigration violations, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research group based at Syracuse University.
Republican lawmakers criticized the effort. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) called the review a "backdoor amnesty" that would allow illegal immigrants to stay in the country and take jobs from U.S. citizens.
"Twenty-three million Americans who are unemployed or can't find full-time work must wonder why this administration puts illegal immigrants ahead of them," Smith said in a statement.
The directive, sent out Thursday, stopped short of calling for low-priority cases to be terminated. Instead, Immigration and Customs Enforcement attorneys are instructed to request "administrative closure," a process that puts a hold on proceedings but gives the government the right to reactivate a case.
"It is better than putting out a mother of four U.S. children and spending money on deporting people who pose no harm to the country," said David Leopold, a Cleveland attorney and past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn. "I'll take it."
The Obama administration deported 396,906 people from October 2010 through September of this year, and more than half had criminal convictions. The annual total was about 4,000 more deportations than the record set the previous year.
"When you go into Latino communities across the country, people see the disconnect. This is a candidate who [Latinos] voted for, for many reasons, including his promise of immigration reform, and now his deportation rates exceed that of any prior president," said Joanne Lin, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington.
Obama administration officials say there is no conflict between supporting a path to legal status for some illegal immigrants and stepping up deportations of those convicted of serious crimes. Obama has supported the DREAM Act, which would give legal status to members of the military and students who came to the country illegally at a young age. But the proposed legislation has repeatedly failed in Congress.
"Not surprisingly, our policies have been simultaneously described as engaging in a mean-spirited effort to blindly deport record numbers of illegal immigrants from the country and, alternatively, as comprehensive amnesty that ignores our responsibility to enforce the immigration laws.... Two opposites can't simultaneously be true," said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in a speech last month.
The review aims to align the deportation cases the government pursues with changes to the process that Homeland Security put in place over the summer.
A June 17 memorandum gave prosecutors more discretion over whether to pursue deportations of illegal immigrants who pose no threat to public safety. The memo offered general guidelines — some argued it was too vague to be useful to field agents — but Immigration and Customs Enforcement has begun to roll out a training program to instruct agents on how to apply the criteria.
For Leonor Ferreyra-Garcia, 36, the changes could mean that she can stay with her three U.S.-born children in their home in Akron, Ohio. Ferreyra-Garcia's husband, who worked for a landscaping company and lived in the U.S. for 22 years, was deported to Mexico in July. Her case is currently in court.
"My children don't want to go back to Mexico," said Ferreyra-Garcia, who has lived in the U.S. for 18 years and is represented by Leopold, the Cleveland attorney. "They don't know the country, and I don't want them to see the murder and drugs there."