Obama Halts 17K Deportations, But Record Number Await Hearings

Nearly a quarter million immigrants still await a hearing in their deportation cases.

By Seth Freed Wessler Aug 31, 2010

The Obama administration announced that it will cancel the deportations of as many as 17,000 undocumented immigrants who are applying for lawful status and have no criminal convictions. Those released will be allowed to return to their families and communities as they trod through the immigration application process.

The move is an effort by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to align its practices with its stated intent to focus on the detention and deportation of immigrants with criminal records. Many of those who may be released are longtime residents with deep ties to the United States. Some are married to U.S. citizens and others have been languishing for years in impossibly long immigration lines. They’ve been detained, often far from their families and without access to legal counsel, despite doing everything in their power to gain lawful status.

According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, in June there were a record 247,922 cases waiting to be adjudicated by immigration courts. The backlogs mean that the average wait for detained immigrants facing deportation was 459 days. Though hugely significant for the detainees who could be released, 17,000 amounts to only about 4 percent of the 400,000 deportations expected to be carried out this year.

Most of those who are deported are pulled into the system through programs that ICE claims target immigrants with criminal convictions. But the policies that purport to pursue this end have resulted in the mass removal of immigrants with no convictions or very small violations. As I reported earlier this month, Secure Communities, an ICE program that checks the immigration status of anyone booked into a jail, is not achieving its stated goal:

ICE claims the program "focuses immigration enforcement on the most dangerous criminal aliens first" and is not intended to target people with low-level convictions.

But data released to the press yesterday, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act suit by the Center for Constitutional Rights, National Day Laborers Organizing Network and the Cardozo School of Law, tells a different story.

The vast majority of those identified and deported through the program since its implementation were either convicted of low level crimes or had no convictions at all. Those without convictions comprised more than a quarter of all those deported through the program.

Sarahi Uribe, an organizer with the National Day Laborers Organizing Network said that the numbers "show the vast majority of people were picked up for things like traffic violations. A quarter were picked up for nothing. Day laborers, street vendors and the domestic workers are most impacted."

The release of 17,000 deportees is but the tip of the iceberg and the rapidly expanding immigration enforcement system is still on track to detain and deport hundreds of thousands of immigrants in 2010. The Obama administration plans to make the Secure Communities program operational in every jail and prison by 2013.