ABC News’ Devin Dwyer (@devindwyer) reports:
The Obama administration today announced it will no longer actively seek to deport illegal immigrants who don’t have criminal records and that it will review all existing deportation cases involving non-criminal immigrants on a case-by-case basis.
The news follows months of intense pressure from immigrant advocates who had urged the president to use his administrative authority to refocus the government's limited law enforcement resources while congressional gridlock over a comprehensive immigration system overhaul persists.
The administration has already prioritized the removal of criminal aliens, but today officials took that policy one step further with the promise to review more than 300,000 pending deportations on a case-by-case basis and stay those involving individuals not convicted of crimes.
The Department of Homeland Security said it will also no longer focus its limited resources on apprehending and deporting non-criminals, including young people brought to the country illegally by their parents, military veterans and the spouses of active-duty troops.
“It makes no sense to spend our enforcement resources on these low-priority cases when they could be used with more impact on others, including individuals who have been convicted of serious crimes,” Cecilia Munoz, the administration's director of intergovernmental affairs, wrote in a White House blog post.
“This means more immigration enforcement pressure where it counts the most, and less where it doesn’t," she said. "That’s the smartest way to follow the law while we stay focused on working with the Congress to fix it.”
An administration official said a joint DHS-Justice Department panel will apply a set of criteria to the pending cases, examining a person’s criminal record, his or her contributions to the community, family ties and military service record, all to determine whether or not to put them on hold.
Officials noted that cases can and will be re-opened at any time if the government receives new information on criminal behavior.
Immigrants exempt from deportation will not receive “any long standing immigration benefit or status,” said a senior administration official. They are “simply being put aside so we can focus on other more high priority categories.”
Will these immigrants be eligible to apply for work permits while remaining in the country? Yes, officials said, though that is not new since undocumented persons have always had the opportunity to request temporary work authorization.
“It’s not automatic, it’s not guaranteed," an official said, "those are also decisions that are going to be made on a case-by-case basis.”
The Obama administration has overseen a record number of deportations in each of the past three years. In 2010, DHS deported roughly 400,000 immigrants – an all-time high. More than half had criminal records.
Officials said the overall number of deportations is unlikely to drop with the new policy, but that the composition of the numbers will continue reflect deportation of more criminals.
Immigrant advocates, who had pressed the president to use administrative powers to curtail the numbers and reduce the impact on non-criminals, praised today’s development.
“This is the Barack Obama I have been waiting for and that Latino and immigrant voters helped put in office to fight for sensible immigration policies,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., an outspoken advocate for comprehensive immigration reform.
“Focusing scarce resources on deporting serious criminals, gang bangers, and drug dealers and setting aside non-criminals with deep roots in the U.S. until Congress fixes our laws is the right thing to do," he said, "and I am proud of the President and Secretary Napolitano for standing up for a more rational approach to enforcing our current immigration laws.”
Conservative opponents of the more lenient approach to prosecuting some illegal immigrants slammed it as an unconstitutional “amnesty.”
“This step by the White House amounts to a complete abrogation of the President’s duty to enforce the laws of the land and a huge breach of the public trust,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an advocacy group, in a statement.
“Never, in the history of federal immigration enforcement, has an administration willfully and so egregiously usurped Congress’s and the people’s role to decide immigration issues.”