White House: We Will Halt Some Deportations

The administration finally gets its policies closer in line with its rhetoric on deportation.

By Julianne Hing Aug 18, 2011

The Obama administration is bringing its policies closer in line with its deportation rhetoric. The Department of Homeland Security has issued new guidelines that will allow some people who are currently facing deportation to have their cases stayed, senior administration officials said today.

Authorities from DHS and the Department of Justice will review on a case by case basis the 300,000 people facing deportation and whose cases are currently clogging up the immigration courts. Immigrants facing deportation who are not a high priority for deportation, such as those with no criminal record or those who immigrated to the U.S. as young children, will be removed from the queue.

The Obama administration has long maintained that it wants to focus its immigration enforcement efforts on undocumented immigrants who have serious criminal convictions on their records and who are a national security. Those enforcement priorities were laid out in a memo issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton last year, which laid out three key tiers of deportable immigrants. People with serious criminal backgrounds are considered Level 1, and the highest priority for deportation.

However, the uptick in the Obama administration’s record-setting deportation rate has been driven in large part by the deportation of folks with no criminal record at all. And the majority of deportees who did have criminal records were people classified as Level 3 offenders. The administration deported nearly 400,000 people in fiscal year 2010, and has deported one million people since President Obama came to office in 2009.

Officials said today that under Secure Communities, the keystone program of the administration’s enforcement agenda, more than 94 percent of those who had been deported so far fell within the administration’s stated priorities for removal. Under the policy change, officials also stressed, the number of removals likely will not change. The administration hopes, rather, that the types of people who are being deported will change such that its deporting a higher ratio of people with criminal backgrounds.

The policy would most directly impact DREAM Act-eligible youth–young people who were raised in the U.S. and have no criminal record–as well as military veterans and the spouses of active-duty military personnel, officials said, though the policy change will not mean categorical change for these groups of people. Every deportation case will be reviewed individually, officials stressed.

Officials said that once their deportations have been stayed, immigrants will be eligible to apply for a work permit. The policy change will not offer those whose cases are stayed any legal status, nor does it guarantee that an application for work authorization will be approved. People who were undocumented before will still be undocumented.

The policy change comes after a flurry of raucous protest over the program. The response from immigrant rights advocates has been cautious.

"[T]he Obama administration must end policies like Secure Communities that result in the criminalization of innocent immigrants who are Americans in Waiting like those who came before them," Chris Newman, legal director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said in a statement, adding that he nonetheless hopes the policy changes announced today "will be carried forth."

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified DHS levels of enforcement priority.