Julia Preston, MSNBC, November 17, 2011
The Department of Homeland Security will begin a review on Thursday of all deportation cases before the immigration courts and start a nationwide training program for enforcement agents and prosecuting lawyers, with the goal of speeding deportations of convicted criminals and halting those of many illegal immigrants with no criminal record.
The accelerated triage of the court docket–about 300,000 cases–is intended to allow severely overburdened immigration judges to focus on deporting foreigners who committed serious crimes or pose national security risks, Homeland Security officials said. Taken together, the review and the training, which will instruct immigration agents on closing deportations that fall outside the department’s priorities, are designed to bring sweeping changes to the immigration courts and to enforcement strategies of field agents nationwide.
According to a document obtained by The New York Times, Homeland Security officials will issue guidelines on Thursday to begin the training program and the first stages of the court caseload review. Both are efforts to put into practice a policy senior officials had announced in June, to encourage immigration agents to use prosecutorial discretion when deciding whether to pursue a deportation.
“We are empowering the attorneys nationally to make them more like federal prosecutors, who decide what cases to bring,” said a senior Homeland Security official, who asked not to be named because the policy has not been formally announced.
In the first stage of the court docket review, which will begin on Thursday, immigration agency lawyers will examine all new cases just arriving in immigration courts nationwide, with an eye to closing cases that are low-priority according to the Morton memorandum, before they advance into the court system.
In a second stage, to begin Dec. 4, the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department will start six-week pilot projects in the immigration courts in Baltimore and Denver, in which teams of immigration agency lawyers will comb through the current dockets of those courts. They will focus on cases of immigrants who have been arrested for deportation, but who are not being held in detention while their cases proceed.
Immigrants who are deemed to qualify for prosecutorial discretion will have their cases closed, but not dismissed, officials said. That means that agents could re-open the deportations at any time if the immigrants commit a crime or a new immigration violation. Immigrants whose cases are closed will be allowed to remain in the United States, but they will be in legal limbo, without any positive immigration status.
The pilot projects will also end on Jan. 13, and then officials will decide how to expand the program to all immigration courts nationwide early next year.
The approach of deporting some illegal immigrants but not others requires a deep change in the mentality of the agents, who have long operated on the principle that any violation was good cause for deportation.