A change in federal policy now puts the priority on deporting those who have committed serious crimes.
A child who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border before he knew the meaning of "illegal" is now a recent Minnesota high school graduate who will face an immigration judge on Tuesday to discuss his possible deportation.
But Abimael's chances of being deported, along with that of thousands of other young immigrants in Minnesota brought illegally into the United States by relatives when they were children, may lessen in the wake of a new government directive on deportation cases.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced last week that it will review all 300,000 pending deportation cases in federal immigration courts, a decision hailed by immigrant advocates and lambasted by many congressional Republicans, who accuse the Obama administration of trying to circumvent Congress and clear the way for more illegal immigration. The priority will be on removing from the country illegal immigrants who have committed serious crimes, meaning deportation proceedings for other cases will likely be suspended. The same priority on prosecuting criminals will be used when deciding whether to open new deportation cases.
In Minnesota, immigrants with pending deportation cases and their advocates greeted the new policy with measured enthusiasm.
"Potentially, it's a huge game-changer," said Kim Hunter, an attorney who represents Abimael and several other young immigrants facing deportation. "The reaction among members in the immigration bar is guarded optimism. Ultimately, the policy is only as good as its implementation."
Added Dick Zonneveld, another immigration attorney and chairman of the American Immigration Lawyers Association's local chapter: "It's kind of a work in progress. It's not that all of a sudden all of our clients are having our cases terminated and [will] go off and live happily ever after."
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the department will focus on deporting illegal immigrants who are criminals or pose a threat to national security or public safety. That means immigrants here illegally who have not committed crimes are at less risk of deportation, at least in theory. They'll also be allowed to apply for a work permit.
In announcing the policy, Napolitano said that it will allow more efficient use of resources. "Doing otherwise hinders our public safety mission -- clogging immigration court dockets and diverting DHS enforcement resources away from individuals who pose a threat to public safety," she said. Immigrant advocates and even some states had complained that previous policies were misguided, unfair and too expensive.
Napolitano's announcement comes after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton responded to some critics in June with a six-page memo to ICE agents outlining when and how "prosecutorial discretion" should be used.
That guidance covered those potentially subject to a legislative proposal, known as the DREAM Act, intended to give young illegal immigrants who go to college or serve in the military a chance at legal status.
In Washington, the new priority for deportation cases was lauded by Democratic lawmakers and blasted by some Republicans, who saw it as the administration circumventing Congress to grant amnesty to large numbers of illegal immigrants.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said the shift is part of the administration's "plan to grant backdoor amnesty to illegal immigrants."
But John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, said the announcement provides an important clarification, sending a clear message to ICE officials about which cases should receive the highest priority.
As a result of this development, Keller said he was planning to make sure everyone his office is representing is screened for possible relief from deportation.
Keller said it was unclear whether the announcement will be retroactive. That is, if somebody was ordered deported last Wednesday, will the new prioritization of deportation cases create an opening for that case to be reviewed by Homeland Security officials?
"There are many questions that need to be answered," he said.
Giving some hope
Young immigrants with pending deportation cases in Minnesota's court welcomed the distinction between illegal immigrants with criminal backgrounds and others.
Nestor Soto is 25 and lives in Burnsville. A graduate of Farmington High School, he came to the United States from Mexico when he was about 5. People didn't ask him if he was here legally or not, he said, and he didn't tell anyone. "I went with this throughout my whole childhood," he said, adding that his family kept it quiet too. "This was our secret. None of my friends knew."
When it came time for him to go to college, he was not eligible for government financial aid because of his immigration status. So he paid out of his pocket to study graphic design at Dakota County Technical Collee, he said.
Immigration enforcement officials discovered he and his mother and brother were here illegally and came to the family house one day to take them into custody. Since then, Soto has been fighting deportation. He says he's always been optimistic that ultimately he will be allowed to stay. But he said he is even more hopeful now with the new deportation policy.
Abimael said he dreams of being able to go to college one day, but so far, his immigration status has made it difficult to achieve his goal.
He said he was brought to the United States from Mexico by relatives when he was 7. He grew up in Minnesota and graduated from high school in June. Last spring, he was stopped by police while he was driving a friend home. He did not have a driver's license because of his immigration status. He was taken into custody by immigration authorities and could be deported.
His first immigration hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, and he's not sure how this latest development will affect his case.
"I'd rather wait to hear the final result. I really can't breathe easier," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Allie Shah • 612-673-4488