US will focus on deporting criminals

Obama move aims to free up courts; some immigrants may stay for review

By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / August 19, 2011

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The Obama administration declared yesterday that it would grant an indefinite reprieve to an estimated thousands of immigrants facing deportation, allowing them to stay and work legally so officials can more quickly deport convicted criminals and other serious cases.

Federal officials said they are launching a review of each of the roughly 300,000 cases in the nation’s immigration courts to ensure that new and existing ones reflect the administration’s priorities to detain and deport criminals and threats to public safety.

The move is likely to inflame political tensions with immigration looming as a campaign issue in 2012, and it has major implications for Massachusetts, which has the second-longest immigration court backlog in the United States. All manner of immigrants in the courts’ pipeline could stand to benefit, from factory workers detained in the 2007 New Bedford raid, to same-sex couples about to be separated, to youths facing deportation.

“The president has said on numerous occasions that it makes no sense to expend our enforcement resources on low-priority cases,’’ Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano wrote yesterday to Senate majority leader Harry Reid, outlining the policy.

Doing otherwise, she added, “hinders our public safety mission - clogging immigration court dockets and diverting DHS enforcement resources away from individuals who pose a threat to public safety.’’

Administration officials said they do not know how many immigrants will receive a stay on their cases, though they estimated that thousands could be affected.

Susan Long, codirector of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, which studied the issue in 2007, said most cases in immigration court appear to be people accused of violating immigration, not criminal, laws.

“It definitely could affect a large number of people,’’ Long said.

Officials from the Department of Homeland Security, who prosecute immigrants, and the Department of Justice, which oversees the immigration courts, will examine the cases in the coming months and send letters to immigrants who can stay.

Those immigrants would have the chance to apply for a work permit, though they could not obtain legal permanent residency and their cases could be reopened at any time, officials said.

Officials said the shift cements the message in a June memo from the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, urging agents to focus on detaining and deporting priority cases, such as convicted criminals, immigrants who sneak back across the border after having been deported, and recent border crossers.

Officials cautioned that they would continue enforcement efforts, which led to high deportation levels in recent years.

Yesterday, advocates for immigrants rejoiced in what many said was their first victory since President Obama took office promising - and failing - to tackle immigration policy overhaul in his first year.

Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, praised the move as a “humane and rational approach.’’

“This is a huge victory, not just for the immigrant and refugee community, but for all of us as American people, living up to our ideals,’’ Millona said. “It makes no sense to deport innocent children, to deport immigrant families. This is huge for the president. We commend him.’’

But others condemned the decision as a failure to enforce federal immigration laws.

“Everyone who’s here illegally should not be allowed to stay here,’’ said Joseph Ureneck, cochairman of Massachusetts Citizens for Immigration Reform, which favors tougher controls on immigration. “They should be returned to their home country.’’

The Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform called the Obama administration’s move a “huge breach of the public trust’’ and said it would essentially halt enforcement against many illegal immigrants.

The policy shift would affect less than 3 percent of most of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, but even that number is clogging the federal immigration courts at record levels.

Nationwide, more than 275,000 cases were pending as of May, with the average case pending 482 days, according the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

Boston, which serves all New England states except Connecticut, has more than 8,880 cases pending an average of 617 days, second only to California.

In Massachusetts, the largest groups facing deportation are from Guatemala and Brazil.

Yesterday, the Boston court was so crowded that a judge made immigrants wait in the hall while their lawyers handled the cases, said lawyer Matthew Maiona. He said most cases he sees are not criminals, but people who are accused of violating immigration law.

“I know they’ll be happy,’’ he said.

But he said the new policy would do little for the 11 million here illegally.

“Anything right now is welcome, but I really believe it’s a Band-Aid approach to a gaping wound problem,’’ Maiona said.

Harvey Kaplan, a Boston immigration lawyer, said the policy acknowledges that the federal government cannot deport all 11 million illegal immigrants.

“It just sort of says, ‘Let’s get real. We don’t have the resources. There are many good people out there [so] let’s get rid of the bad people,’ ’’ he said.

Immigrants facing deportation welcomed the news yesterday with a mix of hope and uncertainty, because they will not know if they can stay until the US government sends them a letter.

For Tania Nitch, a 37-year-old immigrant from Guatemala who has lived in New England since she was 14, the news came just in time for her deportation hearing next month. The mother of two said she has been fighting deportation for four years and does not have a criminal record.

“I’m just hoping. I’m keeping my fingers crossed,’’ said Nitch, who lives in Rhode Island.

She said waiting has been agony. “I’m going insane. I mean I don’t know if I’m going to stay or I’m going to leave,’’ she said.

Maria Caguana, a young mother of three in Milford, said she hoped it would help her husband, Manuel Simon Caguana, an immigrant from a rural village in Ecuador who is in a New Mexico detention center pending deportation.

She said he had been arrested in the past for minor offenses such as driving without a license, but was an otherwise hard-working laborer who had lived here for 10 years. A few months ago, he was picked up for a deportation order he did not know he had, and she has not seen him since.

“I hope it happens’’ for him, she said of the stay.

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti.