State lags in deportation shift
BY GINNIE GRAHAM World Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 20, 2012
3/20/12 at 8:10 AM
Oklahoma is behind the national trend in deportations, showing a slower decline in the number of removal orders than overall U.S. numbers, according to data released by a national nonprofit organization.
Nationally, about half of the immigration cases filed result in deportation, while defendants in 76 percent to 97 percent of immigration cases in Oklahoma are ordered out of the country.
Deportations reached decades-long highs during the past two years, leading to record backlogs in immigration courts and longer wait times for hearings.
The Department of Homeland Security and its Immigration and Customs Enforcement started an effort last summer to focus on deporting the most dangerous people, and that change may be leading to significant national drops, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, based at Syracuse University in New York.
However, as Oklahoma lags in the trend, the wait for a hearing date here has reached an all-time high of 336 days, and pending cases remain at record levels.
"This area of the United States tends to be more conservative than other areas of the country, which probably accounts for the lower success rate" in reducing the number of deportations, said Tulsa immigration attorney David Sobel.
The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse uses the Freedom of Information Act to gather data on several federal agencies, including Homeland Security, the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Justice.
A report the nonprofit agency released last month shows a shift in the outcomes of immigration proceedings - a large drop in the percentage of deportation orders and an increase in the number of people allowed to stay in the United States.
This coincides with the administrative memorandums from top agency officials setting priority guidelines for prosecutions.
Officials called for more "prosecutorial discretion" and for a review of pending cases to identify people not deemed to be enforcement priorities. The goal is to reduce the backlog and wait times and target illegal immigrants who pose a greater threat to the nation.
In an examination of data from the first three months of the fiscal year, 51 percent of cases ended with an order of removal - down from the 56 percent ordered removed during the previous quarter.
"Nationally, this is the smallest share ever recorded in court data tracking outcomes during the past two decades," the report states.
Additionally, 14 percent of defendants received a "voluntary departure" order to leave, up from 13.2 percent during the previous quarter.
Counting both removal and voluntary departures, slightly fewer than two out of every three cases, or 65 percent, in the first quarter ended in a deportation order, a historic low, according to the report.
Oklahoma hit a two-decade high number of deportations in the federal government's fiscal year 2010, with 1,564 removal orders. It was projected to hit 1,136 this fiscal year, based on numbers from the first quarter (October-December 2011), according to the nonprofit organization. Some of those orders will be of cases filed more than a year ago.
The data indicate that 97 percent of Oklahoma cases involving detained immigrants will be ordered removed. For immigrants not being detained, it is anticipated that 76 percent will be deported.
Oklahoma is part of the Dallas regional office, with an immigration judge hearing cases in Oklahoma City during one week each month. The administrative judges are part of the U.S. Department of Justice, while prosecutors are from Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Sobel said prosecutors are adhering to the memo guidelines, which do not apply to a wide range of immigrants. He said many immigrants may have compelling and substantial reasons for being allowed U.S. residency but do not meet the specific requirements.
"My belief is immigration counsel is strict as to the prerequisites that apply in the (administrative) memo," Sobel said. "In other words, you must fall under the criteria to warrant the exercise of prosecutorial discretion. That is a limiting standard if a non-U.S. citizen does not fall under the categories listed."
New deportation proceedings sought by the federal government have fallen sharply in both the United States and Oklahoma.
Nationally, they have dropped by 33 percent in the first quarter, while the Oklahoma projections show nearly 54 percent fewer expected filings - from 1,600 last year to 739 by the end of this year.
Last year, 172 immigrants in Oklahoma were allowed to stay in the United States, a high since at least 1998.
That trend is in line with national data, which show that among those alleged to have violated immigration laws, more than one in three (34.4 percent) were allowed to stay in the country.
Oklahoma and the nation are showing large backlogs and longer wait times to get a court date.
The state has more than 1,200 cases pending, up from 185 pending cases a decade ago.
The average wait to get in front of an immigration court judge has grown to 336 days, an increase from 119 days in 2002.
For detained immigrants, the wait time is substantially less. It is about 15 days for those at the Tulsa Jail and 63 days for those in other facilities, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
"The court times are longer than years past, which is due to the number of cases," Sobel said. "I normally find this helpful as it gives many non-U.S. citizens a longer time to stay in the U.S. In turn, they can stay and provide for their families perhaps better than in their home country."
Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376