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After a growing outcry by immigrants, allies, and Members of Congress, outraged at the record number of deportations carried out by the Obama Administration, the Department of Homeland Security announced a new policy in June 2011 that was supposed to focus immigration enforcement on the “worst of the worst” and spare individuals who have been in the U.S. for years, raising families.
Immigrants and their allies applauded these changes and hoped they would be implemented fairly, finally allowing long-time U.S. residents, parents of U.S. citizen children, and young people eligible for the DREAM Act to live their lives with less fear.
Unfortunately, a year has passed since the policy was announced, and very little has changed. In some cases, the situation has even gotten worse.
The Administration’s original policy changes, detailed in memos from ICE Director John Morton and DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano in the summer of 2011, involved an unprecedented review of hundreds of thousands of pending deportation cases. The Department pledged to close the cases of individuals who didn’t meet their enforcement “priorities.”
On a press call today, immigration lawyers, community leaders, and advocates, representing a broad spectrum of Latino and immigrant communities, declared the Department of Homeland Security’s implementation of the new enforcement priorities is failing and asked the Obama Administration to take immediate action to fully implement this policy by protecting families, DREAM Act eligible youth, and those standing up for their civil and labor rights.
Leaders expressed serious alarm at information provided by DHS about the implementation of this policy. Only 1.5% of pending cases have actually been closed and when the initial reviews are complete experts estimate that 4-5% of the cases reviewed will be closed. This number is incredibly low, given the huge number of immigrants with no criminal records who are currently in deportation proceedings.
According to Crystal Williams, Executive Director, American Immigration Lawyers Association:
“In June 2011, ICE set out to make an irrational machine run a little more rationally. They laid out all the best tools to do so, but then chose to work only with one worn wrench. Is it any wonder that little has been improved?”
In an NPR interview over the weekend, ICE director John Morton made the hollow case that ICE has succeeded in focusing deportations on serious criminals and claimed that “people who’ve been here for a very long period of time and have no criminal record and are removed from the United States is, in fact, quite rare. Those people are not our priority and we don’t seek to remove them in large numbers.” However, a front page Washington Post story today highlights the case of a Virginia DREAMer, Heydi Mejia, a graduating high school senior who’s facing deportation just a few days after accepting a her diploma.
“In Mejia’s case, what should be done with an illegal immigrant who came to the country at age 4; who speaks better English than Spanish; who wants to attend Randolph-Macon College in Virginia and become a nurse; whose knowledge about modern Guatemala comes in part from what she’s read on Wikipedia?”
Said Frank Sharry, Executive Director, America’s Voice Education Fund:
“Something is seriously wrong when an honor student who came at the age of 4 and who has broken no laws is scheduled for deportation under a program whose head administrator claims only focused primarily on serious criminals. A year ago, we applauded the changes the Obama administration announced to their deportation policies, and we were hopeful that they would bring a new era of humane immigration enforcement. However, a year later we are sad to declare that the implementation of this policy change is failing. This policy has not made things better, in many cases it’s actually made things worse.”
On today’s call, speakers discussed the release of a new report from Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), titled “Restore the Promise of Prosecutorial Discretion,” which focuses on the human impact of DHS’s failure, analyzes available data on the Administration’s initiative to date and its implications for the families of immigrants, and provides recommendations on what DHS and Immigration and Customs Enforcement must do to restore the credibility of this policy in immigrant communities. The report outlines four recommendations, the foremost of which is ensuring that the policy actually protects families from separation.
According to Angelica Salas, Executive Director, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles:
“Our patience has been exhausted. The Obama Administration has to ensure that DHS implement prosecutorial discretion with the full intent and spirit of the policy. DHS has to act otherwise we will conclude that the lack of implementation is purposeful and in direct contradiction to the original June 17, 2011 discretion memo.”
Saket Soni, Executive Director of the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice, agreed. He helped launch the Stand Up 2012: Make Justice Realcampaign to fight for the rights of immigrants standing up for labor and civil rights, and holding the Administration accountable to promises laid out in a second memo, which instructs ICE to exercise “all appropriate discretion” for individuals “pursuing legitimate civil rights complaints” including “individuals engaging in a protected activity related to civil or other rights (for example, union organizing or complaining to authorities about employment discrimination or housing conditions) who may be in a non-frivolous dispute with an employer, landlord, or contractor.” According to Soni: “The prosecutorial discretion policy calls on ICE to protect immigrants who are defending civil rights. Instead ICE is pressing for their deportation. And the Obama Administration is letting ICE break the promise of basic civil rights to millions of immigrants.”
Last month, leaders from the United We DREAM Network (UWD) and their locally-led organizations launched the “Right to DREAM” campaign with rallies, marches, and protests around the country to demand that President Obama use his power to stop tearing immigrant families apart and provide real and lasting relief for DREAM Act eligible youth. In a newly released memo to the White House, nearly 100 law professors have outlined the three legal mechanisms that President Obama could apply, using his executive authority, to grant proactive relief for DREAM Act eligible youth.
Gaby Pacheco, Education not Deportation (END) Project Coordinator, United We Dream Network said, “I think all of us were really excited to see how the Administration’s prosecutorial discretion policy would roll out, but over the last year, all we’ve seen are families divided and DREAMers deported. The President has clear legal authority to give our community relief, yet he continues to say he doesn’t have the power. Rest assured, we will continue to move forward with our ‘Right to Dream” campaign and take our voices to the White House and to his campaign offices until we see Obama exercise leadership. How can we believe in a powerless President?”
According to Clarissa Martinez de Castro, Director of Immigration and National Campaigns, National Council of La Raza, “Elevating national security and community safety above all else is a priority we can all get behind—it serves the public good and with it, brings some relief to families across America who continue to suffer the consequences of Congressional inaction on immigration. We cannot be at war with our own values and principles, and the rightful and effective use of prosecutorial discretion can help address that. But so far, implementation has been dismal. We need bold action to ensure that what can be done is reflected in what is being done.”