Catholic News Service photo
A group of children from the Chicago area participate in a demonstration  near the White House in Washington July 26 calling for action on  immigration policy in the United States.
Catholic News Service photo
A group of children from the Chicago area participate in a demonstration near the White House in Washington July 26 calling for action on immigration policy in the United States.
As presidential candidates debate the volatile topic of immigration, federal enforcement officers in Portland and elsewhere are quietly enacting a new policy that could bring what one lawyer calls a "seismic shift."

The Obama administration this year ordered better triage when it comes to cases of undocumented immigrants. Under the new rules, deportation is reserved for felons, national security risks or repeat immigration offenders. Immigrants guilty only of minor legal violations and who have long and substantial ties in the U.S. would have their deportation cases set aside.

That could fulfill one demand issued by the U.S. Catholic bishops — that immigrant families not be broken up over small offenses like a broken tail light. Until now, agents have presumed that any violation could be a path to deportation.    

The change is "a potential seismic shift in enforcement," says Geoffrey Scowcroft, an attorney who manages immigration legal services for Catholic Charities in Oregon.

"We are in the very early stages of this, but this policy is as close to good news as we have seen in years," says Scowcroft, who helps immigrants negotiate the legal system.  

Some lawmakers and candidates criticize the changes as an amnesty. But others, including Republican hopeful Newt Gingrich, have called it common sense.
Immigrant cases that get closed will not be dismissed. Prosecutors can re-open proceedings for future offenses.

The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement, described the new discretion as a way to unclog dockets, which now creep along with more than 300,000 cases. It can take two years for an immigrant to move through. Scowcroft knows of people with pending cases who have decided to pack up and go home, unable to make a life in the U.S. with the threat of deportation dragging on.

The Portland Immigration and Customs Enforcement office just added a second judge. That, plus the new policy, could mean a relatively brisk pace. The agency's lawyers in Portland and nationwide are now reviewing current cases to see which should proceed. Enforcement agents and agency lawyers will get a new round of training.

Immigration officials had the power to exercise discretion before the changes, but did so only in highly compelling cases. Now, more immigrants and their attorneys will be requesting stays of removal. Local lawyers have heard of cases being closed already.  

The number of deportations is expected to remain the same. In each of the past three years, the Obama administration has removed nearly 400,000 undocumented immigrants. Under the new procedures, deportation of the worst criminals will likely speed up because low priority cases will be out of the way. Simply being present in the United States without legal status is a civil violation, not a crime.

"From the defense attorney's perspective, I am hopeful that things are moving in the right direction," says John Marandas, a Lake Oswego-based immigration attorney and member of St. Anthony Parish in Tigard. "However, we have yet to see the full implementation of the new policy."

Marandas, a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says fellow members report that prosecutorial discretion is not being applied uniformly nationwide. He's also taking a cautious approach because "immigration policies can change administration to administration."

For now, Marandas says if the policies are implemented fairly, that will empower local immigration officials to alleviate some of the "harshness" that follows arrest and detention of non-citizens.

John Morton, the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, outlined the new discretion policy in June and August memoranda. In an Aug. 18 letter, Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano affirmed the new focus, writing that "enforcement resources must continue to be focused on our highest priorities." The department tends to call the new enforcement policy "smart and effective."

"To address the challenge of an over-crowded immigration court system, and better utilize existing resources, there is an on-going administration-wide effort to focus immigration enforcement resources on those convicted of crimes, recent border crossers, and egregious immigration law violators," says a statement from Lori Haley, west coast spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security. "To further these efforts, the administration is considering, on a case-by-case basis, whether to pursue certain cases that fall outside these priorities, as pursuit of such cases diverts resources from our enforcement priorities and strains the limited resources of immigration courts."