U.S. will review cases of 300,000 illegal immigrants in deportation proceedings

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 bysome 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 Mt. 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 the 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.

This week, U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin ordered the release of hundreds of documents that she said showed how immigration officials have deceived states and local governments on how the program would work.

"There is ample evidence that ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and DHS [Department of Homeland Security] have gone out of their way to mislead the public about Secure Communities," Scheindlin wrote in an opinion on the release of the documents. "In particular, these agencies have failed to acknowledge a shift in policy when it is patently obvious — from public documents and statements — that there has been one."

Earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security told governors that the fingerprint-sharing program did not need their approval to operate and that it was voiding agreements signed to authorize their states' participation.

The documents were released as part of an ongoing lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the Immigration Justice Clinic of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.

One document, titled "Updated Messaging for Secure Communities" and dated Sept. 24, 2010, outlines how the agency changed the way the program was presented to the public two years after it started.

The changes include "less emphasis on partnering and collaboration with local law enforcement." The document also says "emphasis is now on ICE receiving fingerprint matches from federal information sharing, not from the fingerprints submitted by local law enforcement."

About that same time, the agency seemed to be struggling with whether the program could be considered mandatory.

In one July 2010 email, officials discuss how they will respond to then-Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, who was asking whether localities can drop out of the program.

In the email, sent by an ICE employee to Peter Vincent, an agency legal advisor, the employee tells Vincent: "I believe SC is a voluntary program … as the jurisdiction has to enter into an MOA [memorandum of agreement] with SC before the interoperability (ability to bounce criminals' fingerprints off our databases) is turned on." The official also says he doubts whether the state could mandate participation of jurisdictions within its boundaries.

In another email dated Aug. 6, 2010, an upset Secure Communities employee addresses confusing public messaging about the program:

"We never address whether or not it is mandatory — the answer is written to sound like it is but doesn't state it," the employee writes. "It's very convoluted — or is that the point? I'm all about shades of gray but this really is a black-and-white question.… Is it mandatory? Yes or No. OK, so not such an easy question to answer."

In another exchange, dated October 2010, between Secure Communities Executive Director David Venturella and Margo Schlanger, U.S. Homeland Security's officer for civil rights and civil liberties, shows Schlanger repeatedly asking for clarification from Venturella about whether states and localities can opt in or out of the program.

That exchange, which was initially withheld by the agency on the basis that it was a deliberative conversation, was ordered released by the judge.

"There is nothing deliberative or predecisional about the exchange," Judge Scheindlin wrote. "Instead the exchange reflects a request from one part of the agency for clarification as to what the policy is, met with clearly obfuscating answers from another part of the agency."

Senate Democrats pushing for immigration reform welcomed the new policy. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) , said it would "alleviate some of the pressure on our broken immigration system." Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), coauthor 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."

christopher.goffard@latimes.com

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

Times staff writer Ken Dilanian in Washington contributed to this report.

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