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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Nearly 7,000 deportation cases in Georgia to be reviewed for possible dismissal

By Jeremy Redmon
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Friday, August 26, 2011

Thousands of suspected illegal immigrants facing deportation in Georgia will have their court cases reviewed for possible dismissal as the Obama administration tightens its focus on violent criminals and national security threats.

There were 6,861 pending cases combined in immigration courts in Atlanta and the Stewart Detention Center in southwest Georgia as of July 31, the most recent date for which these statistics are available, U.S. Justice Department figures show. Nationwide, there were 289,033 pending cases as of that date.

It’s unclear how many of those cases could be closed under plans the Obama administration announced this month. Federal officials don’t keep statistics on how many involve the people they are focusing on, including those who have committed violent crimes, repeat violators of immigration law, people who recently crossed the border illegally and fugitives from immigration authorities.

Opponents of the government's plans say President Barack Obama is playing politics and ignoring federal immigration laws. Supporters say the government needs to prioritize because it has limited resources to detain and deport illegal immigrants.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced plans for the nationwide, case-by-case review in a letter to U.S. senators Aug. 18. She said a team of officials will review all pending cases based on guidelines Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued June 17. Those guidelines say ICE prosecutors may give special consideration to several groups, including illegal immigrants who were brought here as young children, graduated from high schools here or served in the U.S. military.

A Homeland Security spokesman said the government is still deciding how it will do the case-by-case review and when the work will begin.

But the government has already started closing cases in Georgia based on ICE's guidelines.

On Tuesday, Pedro Morales, 19, of Dalton and Luis "Ricky" Hernandez, 18, of Calhoun were freed from the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin after their attorney cited the ICE guidelines and Napolitano’s letter in court. Both were illegally brought here from Mexico as young children. And both have attended public high schools in North Georgia.

Other Atlanta-area immigration attorneys say they will use similar tactics. Carolina Antonini said that before Napolitano sent her letter this month Antonini told some of her clients facing deportation: “ ‘Look, I am going to request some things, but it is probably not going to work. Start packing your bags.’ My advice to them now is: ‘Don’t pack your bags. Unpack. This is not over.’ ”

Critics are blasting the new policy, accusing Obama of ignoring federal immigration law and making the United States appear more inviting to illegal immigrants.

“You simply cannot overstate the abuse of executive power that this represents,” said Bob Dane, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington-based organization that supports tougher immigration enforcement. “This administration has just gone completely rogue on this.”

Illegal immigration has long been a hot-button issue in Georgia. Critics say illegal immigrants are taking jobs away from U.S. citizens and burdening taxpayer-funded resources. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that there are 425,000 illegal immigrants in Georgia, the seventh-highest total among the states.

Complaining that the federal government has failed to seal the nation’s borders, Georgia lawmakers this year enacted one of the toughest state laws targeting illegal immigration. A federal judge, however, has temporarily put parts of that law on hold amid a court challenge. Other parts of the law went into effect July 1, including a provision that punishes people who use fake identification to get jobs here.

The author of Georgia’s new law -- House Bill 87 -- said the Obama administration’s new approach amounts to “political pandering leading up to an election.”

“Signaling via regulation that they intend to do less enforcement rather than more enforcement is exactly the wrong direction we should be going in as a nation,” said state Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City.

Proponents of the new policy say it makes sense to focus more on deporting violent criminals and terrorists, given the government’s limited resources.

"This case-by-case approach will enhance public safety,” Napolitano wrote in her letter to senators. “Immigration judges will be able to more swiftly adjudicate high priority cases, such as those involving convicted felons. This process will also allow additional federal enforcement resources to be focused on border security and the removal of public safety threats.”

In Georgia, the government has just seven immigration judges. That works out to nearly 1,000 cases per judge, based on the Justice Department’s most recent count.

Meanwhile, it takes 353 days on average for a case to be resolved in Atlanta’s immigration courts, according to a study by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research organization that monitors the federal government. Nationwide, the average is 302.

In interviews this week, Hernandez and Morales -- who were both facing deportation to Mexico -- praised the new approach.

“I grew up being an American,” said Morales, who was illegally brought to the United States from Mexico when he was 7. “I don’t know nothing about Mexico. Mexico is a foreign country to me. And they were trying to send me there.”

Morales was arrested in Whitfield County in June on a charge of driving without a license. He graduated from Whitefield Career Academy and is planning to study auto mechanics at Georgia Northwestern Technical College.

Like Morales, Hernandez was arrested during a traffic stop last summer in Whitfield. He was charged with possession of marijuana, but that charge was dropped, his attorney said. Hernandez is now a senior at Gordon Central High School and plans to study construction in college.

“It’s good,” he said of the new policy, “because now we have more opportunities to go to college and have a better life now, a better job. And we know we will not be deported.”
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