DHS Relaxes Deportation Policy for Certain Immigrants

Last week, the Obama administration announced a major policy shift that will focus more resources on its primary mission: removing dangerous criminals from the country. At the same time, the administration promised to stop pursuing low-priority removal (formerly, deportation) cases that are siphoning scarce enforcement resources away from more pressing needs. A post on the White House blog by Cecelia Muñoz, Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, announced that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will no longer focus its deportation efforts on “individuals such as young people who were brought to this country as small children, and who know no other home,” nor on “military veterans and the spouses of active-duty military personnel.” (See Immigration Update: Maximizing Public Safety and Better Focusing Resources, by Cecelia Muñoz, White House blog, 18.Aug.2011.)

According to Muñoz, DHS and the Department of Justice will jointly review pending deportation cases and remove low-priority cases from the pipeline, by “applying commonsense guidelines to make these decisions, like a person’s ties and contributions to the community, their family relationships and military service record.” The White House blog argues that the new approach is dictated by the sheer number of illegal immigrants in the United States – over 10 million – which makes selective removal the only rational course, targeting the greatest threats to public safety and national security first.

In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said the new policy will free up enforcement resources and unclog court dockets to allow more efficient removal of dangerous criminals. (See DHS Letter from Janet Napolitano to Harry Reid, 18.Aug.2011.)

Napolitano placed the new removal policy in the context of long-term efforts to “focus our resources on enhancing border security and identifying and removing criminal aliens, those who pose a threat to public safety and national security, repeat immigration law violators and other individuals prioritized for removal.” To stave off the inevitable claims that the Obama administration has become “soft on immigration,” Napolitano made the case for a change in removal priorities by pointing to her agency’s recent enforcement successes – essentially arguing that scarce resources should be used where they’ll help most:

“While additional work remains, we have made tremendous progress in our efforts to focus DHS resources on these enforcement priorities. Our [fiscal year (FY)] 2010 statistics are illustrative. In FY2010, ICE removed 79,000 more aliens who had been convicted of a crime than it did in FY2008. As a result, for the first time ever and due to the expansion of the Secure Communities program, over 50 percent of the aliens removed by ICE in a fiscal year were convicted criminals. Of those removed with no confirmed criminal conviction, more than two-thirds were either apprehended at the border or were repeat violators of our immigration laws. As enforcement directives continue to be implemented, we anticipate that these trends will increase in FY2011.”

Napolitano cautioned that the new policy “will not provide categorical relief for any group,” and therefore “will not alleviate the need for passage of the DREAM Act or for larger reforms to our immigration laws.” Nonetheless, two key proponents of the federal DREAM Act – Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) – hailed the administration’s new removal policy as a positive step for the students who would be affected by the DREAM Act. (See Immigration: Obama Eases Student Deportations with New Policy Applauded by Durbin, Gutierrez, by Lynn Sweet, Chicago Sun-Times blog, 18.Aug.2011.)

In a statement quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times, Senator Durbin contended that, “If fully implemented, the new process should stop virtually all DREAM Act deportations.” Durbin praised the Obama administration for making “the right decision in changing the way they handle deportations of DREAM Act students,” noting that:

“These students are the future doctors, lawyers, teachers and, maybe, Senators, who will make America stronger. We need to be doing all we can to keep these talented, dedicated, American students here, not wasting increasingly precious resources sending them away to countries they barely remember.”

As the Chicago Sun-Times reported, Congressman Gutierrez, a leading immigration advocate and Latino activist, who has sharply criticized the White House for its recent crackdown on illegal immigration – of which removals were a key part – commended the administration, however grudgingly, for taking “a more rational approach to enforcing our immigration laws.” For the Obama administration, this is political paydirt: praise from an erstwhile critic within the ranks of his own party. As we have noted in prior posts, Mr. Obama will need the full support of the Latino community to win a second term, and this will shore up his standing with this pivotal segment of the electorate.

What remains to be seen is how the new removal policy will be implemented, when the rubber meets the road. Until we see exactly how this progresses, perhaps the standard disclaimer is in order: actual mileage may vary.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.