The Obama administration has long withstood criticism for its immigration policy, which immigration rights advocates say has been too broadly focused, resulting in more deportations during Obama’s two years in office than any other president in history. In a turnaround last week, the federal government responded to these criticisms by announcing a new policy that offers a reprieve from deportation for thousands of undocumented immigrants.
The new policy, which Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced Thursday, would shift the government’s deportation priorities to focus primarily on those who pose a threat to national security or public safety, and to put less emphasis on deporting undocumented immigrants with clean criminal records. Under these new terms, the government will reassess some 300,000 pending deportation cases and review them on a case-by-case basis.
In a letter to a group of senators supporting immigration reform, Napolitano wrote: “From a law enforcement and public safety perspective, DHS enforcement resources must continue to be focused on our highest priorities. Doing otherwise hinders our public safety mission — clogging immigration court dockets and diverting DHS enforcement resources away from individuals who pose a threat to public safety.”
This comes as a relief for thousands of undocumented immigrants with clean criminal records who are facing immigration court hearings, including those who immigrated as children with their families and those with family ties in the U.S. – including those in same-sex unions who do not receive federal benefits under the Defense of Marriage Act. In San Francisco, a pending case involving the deportation of Alex Benshimol, a Venezuelan married to another man in the U.S., was dropped early this week. Another high-profile case involving Anthony Makk, an Australian native under threat of being deported and separated from his partner, a U.S. citizen with AIDS, would likely also be granted leniency under the new Homeland Security policy.
The move would also have a significant impact on the growing movement to pass the DREAM Act, the federal bill that would carve a path to citizenship for undocumented students who immigrated as children with their families. Last month, Need to Know spoke with Ju Hong, an undocumented student at U.C. Berkeley and activist who was arrested with a group of students in July during a rally. Authorities released Hong and the other six students arrested that day, but he received a notice for an impending immigration hearing.
“Although I am released, it doesn’t mean I am safe right now,” Hong told Need to Know last month. But under the Obama administration’s new policy, students like Hong would now most likely be protected from the threat of deportation.
However, while pro-immigration advocates have heralded the Obama administration’s decision, not everyone has been so celebratory. Peter T. King, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said that the policy was “a blatant attempt to grant amnesty to potentially millions of illegal aliens in this country.” Texas governor and GOP presidential contender Rick Perry, who has been a supporter of his state’s own version of the DREAM Act, criticized the shift as well. The governor’s spokesperson told the Houston Chronicle in an e-mail that the Obama administration was “selectively enforcing our nation’s immigration laws.”
Others still have noted that the new policy does not rid the immigration system of controversial elements such as Secure Communities, the federal program that compels local law enforcement partners to share fingerprints from criminal databases with Immigrations Customs and Enforcement. Critics have argued that under Secure Communities, thousands of immigrants have been targeted and eventually deported from the country on simple misdemeanor arrests. Moreover, it remains unclear what will happen among those who do have criminal histories. At Colorlines, Julianne Hing writes:
How, for instance, will the administration deal with the many people with criminal convictions on their record, whose convictions are old or extremely minor, and who may also otherwise be eligible for relief because they too came to the U.S. as children and have deep family ties in the country and are no threat to national security? Indeed, many young people who are otherwise eligible for the DREAM Act have also had interactions with the criminal justice system. What will happen to them is still yet to be determined. The lives of immigrants are far more complex than policymakers would make it seem.
It remains to be seen whether the policy shift will boost President Obama’s approval numbers among Latino-Americans in the coming months. A recent poll conducted in July and August, before the Department of Homeland Security’s announcement, found his approval rating among registered Latino voters in 21 states fell to 63 percent, down from 68 percent in June and 73 percent in April.