Last week the Obama administration announced it would suspend deportation proceeding against thousands of undocumented immigrants that pose no serious threat to national security or public safety.
Recognizing the failure of Congress to pass immigration reform, activists say the new policy is largely due to their on-going nationwide campaigns and protests pressuring the president, who they support, to use his executive pulpit and act on immigration. Activists note the increasing demands over the years by elected officials, labor and civil rights leaders and the entire Latino and immigrant rights community, has in the short run, finally paid off. And although the new changes are far from a complete immigration victory, they are a major step forward in the movement for immigrant rights.
White House officials and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said they would exercise "prosecutorial discretion" to focus enforcement efforts on cases involving criminals and people who have flagrantly violated immigration laws. DHS also announced the creation of a joint committee with the Department of Justice that will review nearly 300,000 cases currently in removal proceedings to determine which ones are low priority and can be administratively closed in order to begin unclogging immigration courts.
"Prosecutorial discretion is not a new concept, and is exercised on a daily basis by law enforcement agencies," said Melissa Crow, director of the Legal Action Center at the American Immigration Council, during an August 22 telephonic press briefing.
"It refers to the authority of a law enforcement agency or officer to decide whether - and to what extent - to enforce the law in a particular case," she added.
Also on the call was Javier Morillo-Alicea, president of the Service Employees International Union, Local 26 in Minnesota.
"For years now we have reminded the [Obama] administration that their stated enforcement priorities of going after criminals - not law-abiding citizens - was not an on-the-ground reality," he said. "Last week's announcement, if properly implemented, will give teeth to long-stated enforcement priorities which is an extremely important move on the part of the administration. It is right on policy and it is right on politics."
Janet Murguía, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza praised the new policy as a significant step forward.
"Advocates across the country have been doing an incredible amount of work to share the countless stories of how current policies are creating fear and suffering in communities nationwide," said Murguía in a statement. "We are hopeful that this new action will bring us to a place where community safety is the focus of enforcement actions, and the pain felt in communities is diminished. If executed correctly, the changes announced will bring much-needed relief."
According to officials, those who qualify for relief can apply for permission to work in the U.S. and will probably receive it.
Under the new policy immigration officials can provide relief through administrative action that would protect undocumented immigrant students who would qualify for legal status under the DREAM Act, legislation that has been stalled in Congress for a decade.
The DREAM Act would allow millions of youth who came to the U.S. as children and graduated from high school with the opportunity want attend college or serve in the armed forces. More than two million people might be eligible to apply for legal status under the DREAM Act and up to 200,000 could eventually earn citizenship.
Under the new policy DREAM students, military families, victims of crime and many other individuals who pose no threat to public safety may receive a reprieve from immigration removal.
However supporters of the new policy warn it does not impact individuals who are not currently in removal proceedings. DREAM students and others unlawfully present in the U.S., but not in removal proceedings, should not actively seek out immigration authorities. There are no guarantees that an individual removal case will be administratively closed and anyone who seeks to be placed in removal proceedings could end up being deported.
In response to the new policy the New York Times wrote in an editorial that the White House has just taken a large step toward a more sensible and lawful policy on immigration. Immigration enforcement officers and lawyers should not target people with clean records and those who came here as children, notes the editorial. The elderly, pregnant women, veterans, service members and those with serious illnesses or disabilities should also be excluded.
The editorial charges those who accuse the Obama administration of "'back-door amnesty,' are living in a fictional world, believing that all immigrants are dangerous criminals and that harsher laws and a border fence will make our immigration problems disappear. With this new policy, the administration is rejecting inflexible deportation policies that solve nothing."
The editorial concludes, "Though Immigration and Customs Enforcement is moving in the right direction, many states and local governments are not. Police are still rounding people up needlessly and legislatures are passing harsh laws to criminalize civil immigration violations. There is no question that the government needs to enforce immigration laws vigorously to protect the country from criminals and others who would do us harm. The new policy promises to do that."
Photo: Pepe Lozano/PW