The Obama administration said it will review the cases of 300,000 illegal immigrants currently in deportation proceedings to identify “low-priority” offenders – including the elderly, crime victims and people who have lived in the U.S. since childhood – with an eye toward allowing them to stay.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced the review as the Obama administration has sought to counter criticism that it has been too harsh in its deportation policies. By launching the case-by-case review, officials said they are refocusing deportation efforts on convicted felons and other “public safety threats.”
The administration’s action was cheered by some illegal immigrants, notably college students who have been pushing Congress to pass the DREAM Act, which would allow them to stay in the country.
“It makes me happy and hopeful,” said Rigoberto Barboza, 21, an undocumented student at Mount San Antonio College who supports a family of five with a $9-an-hour job at a fast-food restaurant. He said his mother, who brought him to the U.S. from Mexico when he was a boy, is facing deportation. “I hope they go through my mother’s case, stop her deportation and, if possible, get her a work permit.”
But critics labeled the plan as a “blanket amnesty” for a large group of illegal immigrants.
This “clearly demonstrates the Obama administration’s defiance of both the constitutional separation of powers and the will of the American public,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Immigration experts said the move reflects Obama’s attempt to push his immigration policy forward at a time when Congress has rebuffed the DREAM Act and other immigration initiatives his administration has sought.
Jon Feere, a legal analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, which has sought tougher restrictions on immigration, said this was “an effort by President Obama to appeal to some Latino voters, but the overwhelming majority of Americans want strong enforcement.”
Some immigrant rights advocates were skeptical about Obama’s plan. “We’ve heard elegant statements of priorities before,” said Chris Newman of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. “I don’t know what today has changed.”
The administration’s stated policy has long been that certain groups of illegal immigrants, such as so-called DREAM Act-eligible students who were brought here as children, were not the focus of the immigration department’s efforts.
But the new announcement is the administration’s strongest yet about its immigration priorities, however, and comes amid recent criticism of the Secure Communities immigration enforcement program.
The program, which uses fingerprints gathered by local and state police to aid federal authorities in identifying criminals to be deported, has sparked protests across the country in recent days. Critics say it victimizes immigrants who have not been convicted of any crime.
Senate Democrats pushing for immigration reform welcomed the new policy. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont said it would “alleviate some of the pressure on our broken immigration system.” Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, co-author of the DREAM Act bill that would grant a path to citizenship for immigrant students, described the policy as “a fair and just way to deal with an important group of immigrant students.”