Last week, senior officials from the Obama administration and the Department of Homeland Security announced that they will review nearly 300,000 pending deportation cases and grant reprieves to illegal immigrants who don't have criminal records, came here illegally as children, are close family of military service members, or are parents or spouses of American citizens. Immigration reform advocates both local and national are applauding the move while maintaining a healthy degree of skepticism about whether the government agency that has deported nearly 800,000 foreigners in the past two years is truly committed to change.
Ayala remains particularly wary of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's
"Secure Communities" program, which cross-references fingerprints of suspected undocumented immigrants detained by local law enforcement agencies with an ICE database. Only detainees who "pose a serious threat to public safety" are supposed to be deported, but public documents released by ICE indicate that more than 80 percent of the people sent packing had no criminal convictions at all or were charged with minor infractions like traffic violations.
According to OneAmerica, 15 Washington counties have expressed interest in joining the program, and Yakima, Franklin, and Lewis Counties have already began sharing fingerprints with the federal authorities.
Additionally, since the last week's announcement only lays out guidelines and is not based on an actual law passed by Congress or written directive from the President, it remains ambiguous who exactly will qualify for reprieves and if individuals already entangled in the late stages of the deportation process will be spared.
Nationally, the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) warns that, although ICE and DHS claim to be refocusing their finite resources on the "highest enforcement priorities," there is ample evidence to suggest that otherwise upstanding Americans are still being targeted.
Last week, AILA issued a report entitled "Immigration Enforcement Off Target: Minor Offenses With Major Consequences." Drawing on 127 case examples from incidents in 24 states, the group concluded that "individuals who have been picked up for minor infractions and who pose no threat to our communities" frequently end up being deported, despite the government's stated mission to spend taxpayer dollars only on individuals who present threats to public safety and national security. AILA writes:
The report questions whether federal immigration agents should respond to individual roadside calls by local law enforcement unless there are indications that the person poses a risk to public safety Immigration enforcement must be targeted, and by responding to referrals from local law enforcement in a largely indiscriminate manner, DHS is being diverted from its own stated priorities. In addition, the report raises concerns about the erosion of community trust, hindrances to community policing, and racial profiling.
Today, The New York Times detailed one of the first reprieves under the new system: the case of Manuel Guerra, a Florida immigrant-rights leader studying to become a priest who had been fighting his deportation for nearly five years.
In Seattle, OneAmerica spokesman Charlie McAteer says he hasn't heard of any immigrants who have been let off the hook just yet, but many people are getting their hopes up.
"Yesterday I heard this amazing story of an undocumented couple who have been here nearly 20 years," McAteer says. "After 10 years of trying, unsuccessfully, to get citizenship, they received a letter from DHS saying they're facing deportation. A few days later, this announcement is made. Now, instead of having to teach their middle school-aged children Spanish because they didn't know it because they grew up speaking English, and having to sell all their possessions and house and move back to Mexico, they're looking forward to staying in their community in Tacoma. Stories like that are what this is all about."