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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Deportation cases halted, but illegal immigrants lives remain on hold

Deportation cases halted, but illegal immigrants lives remain on hold
By Jeremy Redmon  
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
5:39 a.m. Monday, May 7, 2012

Dalton -- Pedro “Peter” Morales remembers the party his family and friends threw last summer after he was freed from a detention center and told he would not be deported to Mexico.

They presented the 19-year-old with a chocolate cake that said “Welcome Back, Pedro.” His dad grilled chicken and steaks. Morales -- who was illegally brought to the U.S. by his parents when he was 7 -- was relieved to be back home in North Georgia. But those happy feelings have given way to anxiety. He still does not have legal status in the U.S. And the government won’t permit him to work legally here.

His situation stems from the federal government’s efforts to shrink a massive backlog in the nation’s immigration courts, totaling 306,010 cases as of last month. The government is shifting more of its focus toward deporting violent criminals, fugitives from immigration authorities, recent border crossers and people who have re-entered the country illegally.

Morales’ deportation case is among 2,722 the government has closed as part of this effort so far, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement figures show. Of those, 41 were from Atlanta’s immigration court, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse -- a research organization that monitors the federal government.

Charles Kuck, Morales’ immigration attorney, said his firm has about 20 other clients in the same predicament as Morales. He predicted there are many more caught in similar circumstances nationwide.
“It’s quite clear that there was not a lot of thought given to what happens to these people when we exercise our discretion of ‘Throw them back in the ocean,’ ” said Kuck, who teaches immigration law at the University of Georgia and is past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “It’s disappointing there wasn’t a better plan, frankly.”

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, has a different view. He said halting illegal immigrants’ deportation cases and then permitting them to work here could send the message that it is OK to enter the country illegally and stay here without legal status.

“It is like: ‘Hey, you know, now I’m legal. It’s great. I’m glad ICE arrested me,” said Krikorian, whose Washington-based organization advocates for tighter immigration controls. “Giving work authorization really is much more problematic.”

Federal officials said they are constrained by law concerning when they may grant work permits. They said some people who have had their deportation cases closed since last year have received work permits, but they could not immediately say how many.

They also pointed out that the Obama administration has been pushing Congress to pass the Dream Act. That measure -- which failed in Congress in 2010 -- would give illegal immigrants a path to legal status if they came here as children, graduated from high school and attended college or served in the military.

Meanwhile, ICE officials said they are moving as quickly as they can to review the cases pending in the nation’s immigration courts. They said they are trying to “alleviate the burden posed on already overwhelmed immigration courts” and have identified about 16,500 cases that meet their criteria for being closed. Closing cases through this process, according to ICE, allows the agency “to more quickly remove those individuals who pose the biggest threat to community security and who have most flagrantly abused our immigration system.”

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ignited controversy in August -- the same month Morales was freed -- when she announced the case-by-case review. The government’s actions come as Georgia and several other states are seeking to crack down on illegal immigration through their own new laws. Among other things, those statutes seek to block illegal immigrants from taking jobs from U.S. citizens and getting public benefits they are not entitled to. Parts of those laws are tied up in federal court amid legal challenges.

State Rep. Matt Ramsey, who authored Georgia’s illegal immigration law, said it makes sense for the government to prioritize deporting criminal illegal immigrants. But the government wouldn’t have such a massive court backlog, he said, if it spent more resources keeping illegal immigrants out of the country.

“They are in a position of having to do this because they have fundamentally failed over a period of decades to stem the tide effectively,” the Peachtree City Republican said, “and they are still not adequately putting the resources behind it to address the problem.”

President Barack Obama's supporters point out that his administration has deported a record number of illegal immigrants and other noncitizens. Last fiscal year, that number was 396,906, the largest number removed in the history of ICE.

Morales feels strongly about the government’s decision to halt deportation cases like his. A graduate of Whitfield Career Academy, he considers himself mostly American. His high school friends nicknamed him Peter. He sometimes speaks to his parents in English because he doesn’t know which Spanish words to use.
“I was raised here,” said Morales, a quiet, polite man who speaks in a somber tone. “I wouldn’t know what to do in Mexico if I go back.”

After his case was closed last year, Morales applied to the government through a process that could lead to a work permit, but his application was denied in March, his attorney said. Morales wants to get a full-time job -- with health insurance benefits -- to pay for tuition at Georgia Northwestern Technical College. He wants to study auto mechanics there and open his own car repair shop. He said he can’t support himself without full-time work, so he lives with his parents and two U.S.-born siblings.

Morales talked about his case this month at his parent’s home in a trailer park just outside Dalton. He said his parents brought him to the United States in 1999, fleeing poverty and crime in Mexico City. Morales was able to keep his legal status secret until he was arrested on Father’s Day for driving without a license. Local authorities determined that he was in the country illegally and turned him over to ICE, which sent him to a detention center 145 miles south of Atlanta in Stewart County. He said he spent many weeks there, depressed and worried about his future.

Morales was freed after his attorney cited the government’s new guidelines for “prosecutorial discretion” in court. Morales said he is glad to be free but is nervous about drawing the attention of immigration authorities again since they have the authority to reopen his deportation case. He said he rarely leaves home. When he does, friends drive. He mostly stays busy playing video games and working out at a local gym, though he can’t shake his restlessness.

“I want to be a good citizen and make a living,” he said. “It’s kind of frustrating right now.”

By the numbers

Seeking to shrink a massive backlog in the nation’s immigration courts, federal officials have begun an extensive case-by-case review of the 306,010 matters pending in the courts to see whether they should be closed because they don’t meet the government’s top priorities for enforcement. The federal government is shifting more of its focus toward deporting violent criminals, recent border crossers, people who have re-entered the country illegally and fugitives from immigration authorities.

As of April 16, the government has reviewed 219,554 cases and determined that about 16,500 of them meet its criteria for being closed. Of those, 2,722 have been closed. They include:

2,055 who have had a “very long-term presence” in the U.S., have an immediate relative who is a U.S. citizen, have established “compelling ties and made compelling contributions” to the U.S.

182 who came to the U.S. under the age of 16, have been in the U.S. for more than five years, have completed high school or its equivalent and are now pursuing or have completed higher education in the U.S.

175 children who have been in the U.S. for more than five years and are either enrolled in school or have completed high school or its equivalent

103 who are a “very low enforcement priority”

100 who suffer from serious mental or physical conditions that would require “significant medical or detention resources”

60 victims of domestic violence, human trafficking or other serious crimes in the U.S.

23 who are older than 65 and have been in the U.S. for more than 10 years

16 who have been lawful permanent residents of the U.S. for 10 years or more and have a single, minor conviction for a nonviolent offense;

8 who are members of the U.S. military, honorably discharged U.S. military veterans or spouses or children of U.S. military veterans

Sources: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review

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