Manuel Guerra Casas was 14 days away from his last immigration hearing. As the days inched closer to his September 1 hearing date, he was running out of legal options. Guerra, who’s undocumented, had been the victim of an immigration scam years ago. An unscrupulous notario had promised to help him get work authorization. The papers never materialized, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement did.
Yesterday, ICE called his attorney to tell him they’d dropped his case. The phone call came on the same day that the Obama administration announced that it would review its 300,000 open deportation cases, and pull people out of the queue who aren’t a high priority for removal, people who have no criminal record and came to the U.S. as kids and pose no threat to the country’s national security. Guerra was one of them.
“It was the biggest news I have ever seen,” Guerra said by phone from his home in West Palm Beach in Florida. Guerra had been fighting his deportation since 2006. “This news just yesterday from the White House, this was awesome. I was in shock.”
So are many immigrant rights advocates, whom have celebrated yesterday’s news even as others point out how few people it will help and that the move still leaves those who win a stay in a precarious position. Those who are undocumented will remain so.
With the announcement, the Obama administration has publicly moved to formally adopt a 2010 memo from ICE director John Morton, which laid out tiers of immigrants the agency should prioritize its enforcement efforts. The memo explains that ICE ought not expend its resources to prosecute and deport those like Guerra, people who have no criminal record, or those who came to the U.S. as kids and pose no threat to the country’s national security. People with serious criminal convictions on their record, “the worst of the worst,” as President Obama has called them, are said to be the highest priority for removal.
Now, DHS and the Department of Justice will convene a working group to evaluate, on a case by case basis, the files of everyone facing deportation, and those whose cases are dropped will be eligible to apply for work permits. The move will not grant any of those people legal status, nor will work authorization be guaranteed. But they will not have to leave the country.
For years, immigrant rights advocates have pushed Obama to exercise his executive authority, which allows him prosecutorial discretion over who the country prosecutes and deports. The numbers within Obama’s record-breaking deportation effort showed that a majority of those being deported, contrary to what the Morton memo called for, had no criminal background whatsoever. Outrage over this fact escalated after the failure of the DREAM Act last December, which would have allowed a select portion of undocumented youth the opportunity to gain citizenship if they cleared a host of hurdles. In April, 22 senators sent a letter to Obama urging him to issue deferred action to DREAM Act-eligible young people, and reminded him of the menu of options he had to ease the lives of undocumented youth.
President Obama was a vocal supporter of the DREAM Act, yet his immigration authorities were still sending deportation orders to DREAM Act-eligible youth. Obama ought to bring his policies in line with his rhetoric, immigrant rights advocates argued. Thursday’s policy change was his administration’s response to those demands.
“I think the feeling is, 300,000 down, about 12 million to go,” said Matias Ramos, a founding member of the immigrant youth organizing network United We Dream, referring to the estimated millions of undocumented immigrants in the country right now who are not in deportation proceedings, but who live everyday at risk of being swept up in the immigration system.
Indeed, administration officials were clear to point out that even though they will be reviewing the cases of people who are currently in deportation proceedings, they have no plans to reconsider their other enforcement programs like Secure Communities, which, critics argue, is the mechanism that allows people to get swept up in the administration’s deportation dragnet in the first place. Administration officials also said that even with the policy changes, they did not expect the number of removals to go down.
That assertion alone is troubling, said Michael Tan, an attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrant Rights Project. He also urged caution around the news, because much is still unknown about how this policy change will be carried out.
“People with criminal histories often have the equities that warrant closure of their cases under this new policy,” Tan said.
How, for instance, will the administration deal with the many people with criminal convictions on their record, whose convictions are old or extremely minor, and who may also otherwise be eligible for relief because they too came to the U.S. as children and have deep family ties in the country and are no threat to national security? Indeed, many young people who are otherwise eligible for the DREAM Act have also had interactions with the criminal justice system. What will happen to them is still yet to be determined. The lives of immigrants are far more complex than policymakers would make it seem.
“We don’t know how serious the administration is going to be in recognition of this,” he said. “As we know there is a significant disconnect between D.C. and how ICE operates on the ground, so the devil is in the details.”
Today, though, many who just yesterday were readying themselves for the worst, are taking a moment to catch their breath.
“I was so worried, so frustrated,” said Manuel Guerra Casas, the Florida man whose removal was canceled yesterday, adding that he and his attorney had launched an online petition four days ago to organize public support for his case and put pressure on the Department of Homeland Security to get his removal order canceled. Casas dreams of become a military chaplain. He was inspired by a priest he met in church who was in the Marines.
“I see it as a good sign that I need to stay here, that I need to stay and work on the DREAM Act and fight for those who work in the shadows and are undocumented.”
“It’s a miracle.”