The Obama administration recently made the significant decision to stop pursuing deportation for immigrants who had no criminal history. Instead, the administration will review non-criminal immigrants’ deportation cases on a case-by-case basis. As a Chicago immigration lawyer, I found this news to be welcome, as did many who feared that President Obama had forgotten his promises to supporters in the immigrant communities.
Early in his term, Obama vowed to make passage of a comprehensive immigration reform law a top priority of his administration. Congress had made no effort of any kind since the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 (CIRA) died in the Senate. Obama’s promises brought hope to many that he would put his considerable capital behind pushing comprehensive legislation through both houses of Congress. But as the financial crises lingered, and as Obama set his focus on passing a different kind of comprehensive reform, for health care, the promise of immigration reform kept getting pushed back. Even worse, since 2010, Congress has been far less open to immigration reform than ever before. Virtually all of the Republicans who control the House are hostile to the idea, and several Democrats as well — making Obama’s task that much harder.
Even more troubling, instead of pushing immigration reform, the Obama administration kept many of the same deportation policies as his predecessor. In 2010 alone, 400,000 immigrants were deported, and many more were put into removal proceedings, even those who had committed no crime. Though immigrant groups put pressure on the Obama administration to adopt a strategy that went around Congress, expectations were low enough that the administration’s latest approach came as a surprise to many.
The Obama administration was already making non-criminal deportation cases a lesser priority, but now administration officials will review all 300,000 pending deportation cases and place a stay on those that are non-criminal in nature. In particular, the Department of Homeland Security will no longer focus on young people illegally brought into the country by their parents or members of the military. Instead, a DHS-Department of Justice panel will apply specific criteria to the pending cases, including any criminal records, contributions to the community, military service, and family ties. If the panel concludes that the immigrant’s background has no red flags, it will put the deportation on hold. As before, any immigrant who wishes to apply for a temporary work visa may do so.
While the new policy is welcome, questions remain. One administration official noted that it does not give the immigration special privileges: his or her case will just be put aside until higher priority cases are dealt with. In some respects, that sounds like a continuation of Obama’s previous policy of giving non-criminal cases a lesser priority, but still making them eligible for deportation. How will the administration keep track of “lesser priority” cases? Can immigrants without criminal backgrounds expect unreasonable amounts of surveillance? Immigration attorneys are all too familiar with the abuses their clients face as a result of their vulnerable status. Furthermore, administration officials claim that the number of deportations will not fall from the all-time-high of 400,000; the difference is that there will be a higher percentage of criminals among the numbers deported.
Overall, the Obama administration’s change in policy is a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy atmosphere for immigrant rights. It is sure to help countless people who have never broken any laws and who just want to live ordinary lives in this country. Maybe it is just political posturing to gain supporters for the 2012 election, but let us hope that it is a sign that Obama has renewed focus on the immigration issues and that this is the first of many significant policy changes for the better.