Letter No. 30: Immigration reform now! (36101)

On March 2, 2011, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton issued a memorandum that drew applause from some quarters and criticism from others. He announced that his agency would only enforce the law against undocumented migrants who “pose a danger to national security or are a risk to public safety” and those who are fugitives or “otherwise obstruct immigration controls.”

In June of the same year, he wrote to agents to “exercise all appropriate discretion on a case-by-case basis when making detention and enforcement decisions in the cases of victims of crimes, witnesses to crimes and individuals pursuing legitimate civil rights complaints.” He urged “prosecutorial discretion” when deciding whom to stop, question or arrest for being unlawfully in the country; deciding whom to detain or release; settling or dismissing a proceeding; and executing a removal order.

According to Morton, appropriate factors to consider when exercising prosecutorial discretion should include the migrant’s length of stay in the United States; whether they came here as a young child; their pursuit of education in the United States, with particular consideration to those who have graduated from a U.S. high school or are pursuing a college or advanced degree; whether the migrant or any immediate relatives have served in the U.S. military; their criminal history; and ties and contributions to the community.

Yet, over a year later, immigration lawyers say the government is not following through on its directive and instead is moving more quickly to deportation proceedings.

Attorneys say the memo has had little–if any–effect on the immigrants they represent before immigration judges. Even though some of their clients fall under the criteria outlined in the memo, they are still being placed in deportation proceedings.

Immigration courts, which are overseen by the Executive Office for Immigration Review, handle immigration cases not already decided by the ICE.

“I think it would be fair to say that the immigration bar is not seeing the results of the Morton memo on pending court cases,” Laura Lichter, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told the Texas Tribune. “We believe that the cases that are remaining in immigration proceedings still do not accurately reflect what should be priority cases.”

But the ICE has defended the claims, saying the agency regularly deports immigrants through “voluntary, administrative, expedited and stipulated removals, as well as the reinstatement of previous removal orders.”

In 2011, ICE removed 216,000 convicted criminals who were undocumented immigrants, an increase of almost 100 percent over 2008, when 114,415 criminal immigrants were removed, ICE statistics show.

Unfortunately, the statistics do not take into account the thousands whose only crime is coming to the United States and living here in an undocumented capacity, most of whom are awaiting a decision on their case.

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data research and distribution organization at Syracuse University, shows that through June 2012, more than 314,000 cases are awaiting resolution nationally. That’s a 5.6 percent increase from 2011 and a 20 percent increase from 2010.

The reality is that the ICE has a lot on their hands daily, and policy changes like the Morton memo, while good, trigger court backlogs and lead to little relief for the immigrants they are intended to benefit. It is time to get immigration judges up to speed on these policy changes and add more to help clear the backlog or this will be nothing but a colossal waste of time.

The writer is founder of NewsAmericasNow, CaribPR Wire and Hard Beat Communications.