Lost in Detention

DHS to begin review of deportation cases

Thursday, November 17th, 2011 

Today, the Department of Homeland Security [DHS] is poised to begin streamlining its much-criticized deportation process, accelerating the court docket of 300,000 cases stuck in limbo and piloting law enforcement training programs in select cities around the country.

The goal, according to New York Times reporter Julia Preston, is “speeding deportations of convicted criminals and halting those of many illegal immigrants with no criminal record.”

These changes come five months after Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] issued a prosecutorial discretion memo [PDF] to help ICE agents and lawyers decide which cases to prioritize, and three months after promising to review 300,000 deportation cases.

The news also follows recent criticism by the American Immigration Lawyers Association [AILA] and the American Immigration Council [AIC], who reviewed 252 case submissions and found that “while practices have improved in a few ICE offices, in the majority of offices ICE agents, trial attorneys and supervisors admitted they had not implemented the [prosecutorial discretion] memoranda and there had been no changes in policy or practice.”

In particular, the memoranda calls for “prompt particular care and consideration” for groups like veterans, long-time lawful residents and victims of domestic violence.

A letter of guidance for ICE attorneys obtained by FRONTLINE essentially echoes the prosecutorial discretion memo, spelling out priorities for accelerated removal. Included are people who are a national security risk, who have a felony or multiple misdemeanors on their record, or who have prior immigration violations.

Among factors to consider for discretion are permanent residents of 10 years or more who have a “single, minor conviction for a non-violent offense.”

It’s the deportation of generally law-abiding, longtime residents of communities that have people like Jerry Stermer, a senior adviser to Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn [D], concerned about ICE programs like Secure Communities. While the program was pitched to him as a way to deport the worst of the worst, the numbers instead revealed that less than 20 percent of those deported had committed a serious crime.

While DHS’s new efforts mark a dramatic change for ICE agents — Preston reports that “deporting some illegal immigrants but not others requires a deep change in the mentality of the agents” — ICE director John Morton and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano don’t expect fewer people to be deported under the shift in tactics.

In fiscal year 2011, a record 397,000 illegal immigrants were deported, up from 392,000 in 2010.