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Minnesota immigrants hoping to catch a break from new rules on who can stay in the country and who must leave haven't had much luck yet.
More than six months after the Obama administration ordered a landmark review of 300,000 pending deportations to focus on dangerous criminals, there's little sign of change in Minnesota's immigration court. Confusion is spreading among immigrants and the lawyers who represent them.
"We have not seen a big shift," said Dick Zonneveld, president of the Minnesota/Dakotas chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
The chapter recently polled its members to see how many had won reprieves for clients based on the new guidelines, and the results were "overwhelmingly negative," Zonneveld said. People who would seem to qualify as low priority for deportation -- meaning they haven't committed serious crimes in the United States and pose no threat to national security -- have seen their appeals denied.
Hard facts will not clarify the situation any time soon. Immigration, Customs and Enforcement officials would not release numbers showing how many cases in Minnesota have been reviewed and how many have been approved for "favorable exercise of prosecutorial discretion."
Data will be released only after all 300,000 cases have been reviewed, according to local ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer. But at a congressional hearing earlier this month, ICE director John Morton said the agency is halfway through the review and, so far, 1,500 out of 150,000 cases have been put on hold.
The vast majority of the people allowed to stay were long-term residents who have either a spouse or a child who is a U.S. citizen, Morton said at the hearing.
Who's a low priority?
Morton issued a so-called "Morton memo" last year, listing 19 factors that could qualify a potential deportee for reprieve, but it's unclear which of those factors count most, and how many factors petitioners must demonstrate to be deemed a low priority for deportation.
A recent review of deportation cases in Denver and Baltimore showed that about one out of every six cases reviewed were designated low priority. But in Minnesota, where the court is so backed up that judges are scheduling hearings out to 2015, immigration attorneys say they doubt that low-priority cases are tracking at the same rate. "Locally, I'm not aware of many examples that seem to track with the memos," said immigration attorney Kim Hunter.
Vincent Martin, an immigration lawyer in Blooming-ton, has had some success. Of the dozen or so reprieves he requested, two were granted.
Cases that get approved, he said, seem to be the ones where clients have a good chance of getting their immigration status resolved anyway.
Prosecutors seem to be rejecting the cases that aren't clear-cut, Martin observed.
"It's the ones that are in-between," he said. "Those cases unfortunately are not seeing the type of favorable discretion that I think the policy had in mind."
One of Martin's successful clients was a man from Guyana who had sought asylum because he was a former drug enforcement agent and had helped the U.S. government in the arrest and prosecution of various drug traffickers, Martin said.
He was at risk of being returned to Guyana, where he feared he would be killed by drug lords.
When word spread among local immigration attorneys that Martin had won discretion for one of his clients, he said, "everybody wanted to see how it happened."
Adding to the confusion, attorneys say, is that there's very little feedback from the government. Responses come in brief letters from the Office of Chief Counsel that simply state that the request has been denied but offer no reason why.
"They almost appear to be form letters," Martin said.
To the attorney for Oscar Siguencia, his client seemed like the kind of person Morton had in mind when he wrote that memo.
Aside from a few minor traffic offenses, the 23-year-old native of Ecuador has had no run-ins with the law. No previous deportations. No gang affiliations.
He was 17 when he came to the United States and has graduated from high school and is currently enrolled at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.
He came to this country, he said, "because I decided I wanted something better for my future."
Siguencia, of Minneapolis, has a year left before he completes his degree in architectural technology. But he might be deported before he can finish.
Last July, while driving home from his restaurant job, he drove through a red light and the police stopped him. He had no driver's license because of his immigration status and was taken into custody. He spent the weekend in jail before his uncle paid his $10,000 bond. Siguencia has been fighting deportation ever since.
When the new guidelines were announced, Siguencia's attorney, Steven Thal, was hopeful for his client.
He asked prosecutors to halt deportation proceedings, arguing that Siguencia met the requirements outlined in the Morton guidelines. But earlier this year, Thal received a letter from the Office of Chief Counsel denying his request.
"To me, it seems counter to the guidance that's come out from headquarters," Thal said. "Why is there this resistance in the field to carrying out what is supposed to be a new policy? Why is it not being carried out? That's the question that remains to be answered."
Siguencia's only hope of staying now rests with the immigration judge, who will hear his case in August.
He remains optimistic that the judge will allow him to stay long enough to finish what he started. "I hope I can do this and they let me stay," he said.
Allie Shah 612-673-4488