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What’s at Stake with Pastor Max Case – Will ICE Director Saldaña & Obama Administration Live Up to Stated Enforcement Policies?

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National and local attention has focused on the case of Pastor Max Villatoro, who was detained last week by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Iowa and faces imminent deportation to Honduras.  Pastor Max’s deportation would break up his family, which includes four U.S. citizen children, and place his life at risk by deporting him to a country that has the highest murder rate in the world and where Max’s relatives have faced threats and been killed.

Yet the case of Pastor Max is also a larger test case for new Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director Sarah Saldaña, as well as Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson and the Obama Administration.  The immigration enforcement policies outlined in a November 2014 memo from DHS Secretary Johnson discuss a balancing test for weighing deportation decisions.  The memo states that officials should “exercise discretion based on individual circumstances,” and consider whether the individual presents a threat to “national security, border security, or public safety“ before carrying out a deportation.

Appearing on CNN’s State of the Union in February, Jeh Johnson explained:

“We’re focused on deporting convicted criminals, threats to public safety, threats to border security, and there’s a population of people who’ve been in this country for years, who are not priorities and will not be deported in any administration, Republican or Democrat.”

And according to President Obama, there will be “consequences” for ICE agents refusing to follow the guidelines on enforcement.  As a he said at an immigration-focused town hall in Miami last month:

“There are going to be some jurisdictions and there may be individual ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] officials or Border Control agents not paying attention to our new directives. But they’re going to be answerable to the head of Homeland Security, because he’s been very clear about what our priorities will be…If somebody’s working for ICE…and they don’t follow the policy, there’s going to be consequences to it.”

As a pastor with four U.S. citizen children, who has been living peacefully without incident for 16 years, Pastor Max clearly does not pose a threat to ‘national security, border security, or public safety,’ and should be granted a reprieve under the 2014 memo.

His lawyer, David Leopold, states, “There’s really no gray area here.  Pastor Max is not a threat to the public, and he’s not a priority for deportation.  The question for families across the country is whether ICE is going to implement the memo in good faith or use it as a pretext to split up American families.”

Unfortunately, there is a troubling recent precedent of stated immigration enforcement guidance on paper not being followed in practice.  In 2011, then ICE Director John Morton issued a memo focused on prosecutorial discretion that called on ICE officials to consider a range of factors in potential deportation cases.  In reality, record-high levels of enforcement continued and the divide between stated priorities and those tasked with carrying out those policies on the ground remained wide.

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, “Pastor Max is a test case for whether announced changes in immigration policy will be followed by actual changes to enforcement practice.  The stakes are high for Max, his family, and the future of immigration enforcement under this administration.”