WASHINGTON -- The Department of Homeland Security will begin to close deportation cases in Seattle, Detroit, New Orleans and Orlando after it temporarily suspends immigration court proceedings in those cities to review thousands of cases.
The review is part of a process initiated by the Obama administration to close cases again undocumented immigrants who are not criminals or who are low-level criminal offenders, particularly those with strong ties to the United States as well as young people who entered the country as children.
The initiative, announced by the government in August, was first piloted in Denver and Baltimore, where 11,682 cases were reviewed and more than 1,600 people were granted reprieve from deportation. Seattle, Detroit, New Orleans and Orlando will be the next cities reviewed. The Washington Post first reported the expansion of the program.
The Executive Office for Immigration Review, part of the Justice Department, confirmed that reviews in those four cities will take place from April 23 to May 4 and proceedings for all cases of non-detained immigrants will be suspended during that time. In the next three cities, proceedings will be partially suspended while reviews take place. New York City will come next, from May 7 to May 18, followed by San Francisco from June 4 to June 15, and then Los Angeles from July 9 to July 20.
Only removal cases against non-detained immigrants will be reviewed during those periods.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has reviewed more than half of the 300,000 deportation cases nationwide pending in immigration courts, agency spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez said in a statement on Friday.
Although decried by Republicans as "backdoor amnesty," the Obama administration says the process will help it focus on deporting the "worst of the worst" -- violent criminals, drug dealers and gang members.
This measure has been applauded by immigrant rights groups and Democrats, who say that in lieu of comprehensive immigration reform something must be done for the nation's undocumented immigrants.
There are an estimated 11 million undocumented people in the United States and few paths to citizenship. The current initiative will not grant citizenship -- or even legal status -- and the individuals whose cases are dropped would potentially re-enter deportation proceedings if they commit a crime.
"Today's announcement of the expansion of the pilot program that began late last year will free additional ICE resources to complete the review and will heighten the Administration’s focus on priority aliens," Gonzalez said in the statement. "The application of prosecutorial discretion allows the agency to ensure that its limited resources are focused on the removal of those who constitute our highest priorities."
President Barack Obama promised to pass immigration reform during his first year in office -- a pledge he failed to pursue. The Dream Act, a narrower measure that would grant legal status to undocumented teens and young adults who entered the country as children, stalled in the Senate in December 2010, just before Republicans took control of the House.
House Republicans are now trying to counter administrative action on deportations, but thus far have had little success.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a hard-liner on immigration, issued a statement on Thursday, arguing that the review "encourages more illegal immigration and rewards those who have broken our laws."
Added Smith: "The Obama administration's decision to expand its backdoor amnesty plan to cities across the United States endangers Americans and insults law enforcement officials."
See the slideshow below for some of the types of cases that could be closed based on the review process:
Undocumented young people who want to go to college or join the military -- the same individuals who would benefit from the DREAM Act -- could see their cases closed by the Department of Homeland Security. Immigration agents are instructed to factor in "the person's pursuit of education in the United States, with particular consideration given to those who have graduated from a U.S. high school or have successfully pursued or are pursuing a college or advanced degree at a legitimate institution of higher education in the United States." This could help young people in deportation proceedings, such as Monji Dolon, a 25-year-old born in Bangladesh who is slated for deportation.
Immigration officials are also instructed to consider "whether the person, or the person's immediate relative, has served in the U.S. military, reserves, or national guard, with particular consideration given to those who served in combat" when making deportation decisions. This could help keep family members of troops out of deportation proceedings.
Immediate family members of U.S. citizens are designated as low priority for deportation if they have no criminal record. Officials are instructed to factor "whether the person has a U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse, child, or parent," potentially helping families like Hope and Nazry Mustakim, who are fighting for Nazry to stay in the country.
Binational same-sex couples will be treated as families -- despite the Defense of Marriage Act -- in the eyes of immigration agents, senior administration officials confirmed in a call with reporters.
Immigration officials are told to consider age, particularly for the elderly and minors, when making immigration enforcement decisions.
Discretion should be applied in some cases where the immigrant is a primary caretaker of a disabled or seriously ill relative, according to the DHS memo. Immigration agents are also instructed to consider whether the person's spouse is pregnant or nursing.
Immigration agents are instructed to factor "whether the person is likely to be granted temporary or permanent status or other relief from removal, including as an asylum seeker, or a victim of domestic violence, human trafficking, or other crime." If the person is likely to receive asylum, that person will be considered low priority for deportation.
Immigrants with severe mental and physical illnesses may be safe from deportation in some cases, provided they have not committed serious crimes. Officials are told to consider physical and mental illness when making a decision about deportation.