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Faced With Backlog, Feds Dismiss Deportation Cases Against Non-Criminal Immigrants

Homeland Security is reviewing and moving to dismiss deportation cases against suspected illegal immigrants without serious criminal records. While deportations overall are much higher under Obama, so are backlogs of immigration cases.

About a month ago, Homeland Security began reviewing and moving to dismiss deportation cases against suspected illegal immigrants without serious criminal records, according to The Houston Chronicle. It’s not just happening in Houston, either. Here’s the Chronicle:

Raed Gonzalez, an immigration attorney who was briefed on the effort by Homeland Security's deputy chief counsel in Houston, said DHS confirmed that it's reviewing cases nationwide, though not yet to the pace of the local office. He said the others are expected to follow suit soon.

Gonzalez, the liaison between the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which administers the immigration court system, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said DHS now has five attorneys assigned full time to reviewing all active cases in Houston's immigration court.

Gonzalez said DHS attorneys are conducting the reviews on a case-by-case basis. However, he said they are following general guidelines that allow for the dismissal of cases for defendants who have been in the country for two or more years and have no felony convictions.

This shouldn’t come as too much of a shocker. The Obama administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have been up front about prioritizing the deportation of undocumented immigrants who are criminal offenders. The method, however, may be new. As The Washington Post reported last month, the administration’s main mechanism for the prioritization of criminal illegal immigrants has been to shift away from work-site raids and toward a program called Secure Communities.

Secure Communities, as The New York Times describes it, helps authorities check an arrested person’s immigration history through a government database. It’s increasingly being implemented across the country despite the objections of immigration advocates (who say most of the program’s deportations are of immigrants who aren’t violent criminals) and immigration foes (who aren’t in favor of letting non-criminal undocumented immigrants escape deportation, period).

“Even the ones who haven't committed murder or rape or drug offenses, all of them have committed federal felonies,” Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that favors tighter restrictions, told the Post.

So it’s no wonder that Krikorian wasn’t too pleased at the news that deportation cases were being dismissed for non-criminal immigrants. He told the Chronicle that the administration has “made clear that they have no interest in enforcing immigration laws against people who are not convicted criminals.”

A quick review of Homeland Security statistics compiled by the Post, however, shows that deportations have been higher under the Obama administration than under Bush. Deportations in 2009 reached a high of nearly 390,000 and will likely be higher in 2010. Criminal deportations rose 19 percent from 2008 to 2009, and as of June 7, were about half of this year’s total deportations.

Under Obama, the backlog in immigration cases has also reached record levels, according to recent data from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. In mid-June, about 248,000 were pending in immigration courts. Suzy Khimm, writing for Ezra Klein's policy blog at the Post, pointed out the backlog in a post this week. (The backlog in Houston's immigration courts was eighth highest in the country, with 7,444 cases pending.)

Immigration attorneys told the Chronicle that these deportation case dismissals still leave their clients in legal limbo — they haven't been expelled, but they haven't been granted any additional rights, so it's not "backdoor amnesty," as critics claim.

Congress and the Obama administration recently added additional law enforcement at the border, but whether this will result in more deportations may depend on whether the backlog persists. Given that many immigration judgeships still remain vacant, as TRAC has noted, it seems quite probable, unless dismissals by Homeland Security happen to bring some relief.

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