U.S. policy shift gives illegal immigrants hope of staying

  • Article by: PAUL MCENROE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 18, 2011 - 6:48 AM

Revised focus on deportation enforcement will affect hundreds in Minnesota.

More than 1,700 illegal immigrants facing deportation proceedings in Minnesota have new hope of remaining in the United States, the result of a federal order issued on Thursday that directs immigration authorities to focus on the most dangerous individuals rather than those with minor offenses.

Illegal immigrants considered nonthreatening -- those suspected of document violations or other civil offenses -- will see their deportation proceedings temporarily halted under the directive from the Obama administration. Instead, agents and prosecutors have been directed to remove the most dangerous illegal immigrants, as outlined in a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) memorandum originally issued last summer.

"It's a big deal,'' said John Keller, director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota. "What you are seeing is the follow-through and commitment by DHS -- in a tangible way -- of prioritizing which people will be put into deportation proceedings.''

Of 4,000 new deportation cases filed at the U.S. Immigration Court in Bloomington in fiscal 2011, about 1,700 were "non-detainees'' -- immigrants suspected of being here illegally but who were not detained because they had no felony record, according to court records.

Illegal immigrants who will receive low priority in the deportation process include military veterans or relatives of veterans, children who were brought to the United States at a young age and are now nearing adulthood, and victims of abuse and other serious crimes. People in those categories who are already in the deportation process will see their cases be temporarily put on hold, Keller said.

"DHS acknowledged in a June memo that they were not getting the biggest bang for the buck with all the money they were spending by going after these kinds of people,'' Keller said.

Clogged courts

The new deportation strategy is designed, in part, to relieve a huge backlog in federal immigration courts, which are so overwhelmed that there is now about an 18-month wait for a full court hearing, Keller said. In fiscal 2010, for example, Minnesota immigration courts had 2,300 "non-detainees'' caught in similar deportation proceedings, and many of those cases are still open and awaiting resolution.

Nationally, 272 immigration judges -- members of the Department of Justice -- were assigned with completing more than 353,000 matters last year in cases that are often extremely complicated and time-consuming.

In each of the last three years, close to 400,000 illegal immigrants have been deported from the United States.

In Minnesota, there are three immigration judges -- each with a daunting daily calendar that considers newly detained individuals, those seeking asylum and criminals held in prisons who are being scheduled years ahead for eventual deportation back to their home countries.

Individual hearings on the master calendar list are quick, usually lasting about 15 minutes maximum, and most are continued for weeks and weeks, with the result that individuals can languish in the system for months without having their cases resolved.

Beginning early next month, DHS and the Department of Justice will launch a six-week pilot program in Denver and Baltimore to test-run the process for reviewing cases currently pending in immigration courts.

Keller urged caution for those with questions about their immigration status.

"This is not amnesty,'' he said of the new directive. "It is a temporary stoppage of deportation proceedings for those who are now considered to be officially low-priorities for prosecution."

Paul McEnroe • 612-673-1745

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