Hoping they’re ‘low priority’

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Hilda Jauregui and dozens of women at an Orange County immigration detention center recently gathered to hear the news on television that the Obama administration will review thousands of deportation cases with an eye closing those considered “low-priority.”

“Everyone was shouting and hugging each other,” Jauregui said in a telephone interview from the James A. Musick jail facility last week. “One woman said ‘I’ll qualify because I’m older,’ another said she had children who were born in the country. Everyone was trying to find something positive that would make them qualify.”

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced the review Aug. 18 as the administration was seeking to counter criticism that it has been too harsh in its deportation policies. The case-by-case review is intended to refocus efforts on felons and other public safety threats, officials said.


Now immigrants around the country are trying to find out how the review of nearly 300,000 deportation cases will actually work. The administration has said it would try to identify immigrants considered low-priority -- including students, the elderly, victims of crime and people who have lived in the U.S. since childhood.

Many immigrants expressed hope that their cases would qualify, but immigration attorneys and advocates urged caution until more details are known. Meanwhile, a U.S. Homeland Security official last week offered some additional information about the review process.

A working group made up of at least 20 Homeland Security and U.S. Department of Justice employees will review the cases with help from field offices around the country, said the official, who declined to be identified because he is not authorized to talk publicly about the process. About half of the group will consist of attorneys; the remainder will be operational officials and representatives from Homeland Security’s policy and civil rights offices.

Individuals will not be able to appeal the group’s decisions about whether cases are classified as high priority or low priority and will have to rely on already established court processes for any kind of appeal, the official said.

Those whose cases are closed will be able to apply for work permits based on an existing regulation that allows those granted deferred action to apply for permits if they establish economic necessity, the official said.

Melissa Crow, director of the Legal Action Center, an immigrant rights advocacy group, and a former Homeland Security official, urged caution and patience until more is known about the review process.


“We’re not yet sure how the agency’s commitment will play out in practice,” she said. “In an ideal world, the government would thoroughly review every single one of these 300,000 pending cases and where necessary seek additional information from individuals or from their lawyers to make a solid determination about whether cases are low priority or high priority.”

Meanwhile, critics have denounced Obama’s plan as a blanket amnesty for a large group of illegal immigrants and said the president is simply trying to court Latino voters. They said the majority of Americans prefer tougher enforcement.

Some immigrant rights attorneys described trying unsuccessfully in the past to argue that their cases should be considered low priority under guidelines issued by the Obama administration. Others said they were encouraged by recent decisions.

Lavi Soloway, an immigration attorney who represents several same-sex couples, claimed victory earlier last week after immigration officials moved to administratively close removal proceedings for a Cathedral City man he represents who is in a same-sex marriage.

Soloway had argued that the man’s case should be considered low priority because he is married, has strong community ties and no criminal history. The department’s motion was made before the administration’s announcement but was dependent on criteria announced in June that will be the basis for the systematic review.

Soloway said he did not yet know if his client would be allowed to apply for a work permit.


Jauregui, her husband and youngest daughter came to the attention of U.S. immigration officials after an advisor convinced them to apply for asylum, a common fraud scheme. Their claim was denied and they were ordered to leave the country more than 10 years ago, said her attorney, Jessica Dominguez. The family appealed the order, but this year they were detained by immigration officials at their home in Duarte, Dominguez said.

Jauregui has six children, four of whom are U.S. citizens, one who is a legal permanent resident and one who is undocumented. She also has a 17-year-old grandchild, also a U.S. citizen, of whom she currently has custody. Jauregui has no criminal record and said there is nothing for her or her family in their home country, Peru.

“I think, because of our age and because of our granddaughter, we might qualify,” she said. “We’re not prepared to return to our country.”