Immigration enforcement takes new approach
BY GINNIE GRAHAM World Staff Writer
Monday, July 30, 2012
7/30/12 at 7:25 AM
Since August 2011, federal officials have closed 14 Oklahoma immigration cases using prosecutorial discretion, a legal tool emphasized by the Obama administration to decrease backlogs and focus enforcement efforts on dangerous individuals.
A report released by the nonprofit Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse shows that 5,684 cases closed under this program account for 1.9 percent of the total pending cases in the administrative immigration courts as of the end of last September.
Immigrants who qualify for prosecutorial discretion have their cases closed but not dismissed. That means their cases could be re-opened for deportation if the immigrant commits a crime or a new immigration violation.
Immigrants whose cases are closed are allowed to remain in the U.S., but they are in legal limbo. They are not granted legal status or given a path to residency.
Deportations are decided in immigration courts, which have judges provided by the U.S. Department of Justice and prosecutors hired by Homeland Security. Immigrants with pending legal cases may be tried by state or federal prosecutors before entering the administrative process.
Despite record numbers of deportations under the Obama administration, backlogs continue to grow, resulting in long wait times and stretched resources.
Last August, federal officials announced a plan to prioritize cases based on several factors, including any type of criminal activity, a person's ties to the community, family relationships and military service. Guidelines were provided to prosecutors as a way to help screen out low-priority cases.
At the end of last September, there were 298,173 cases pending in immigration courts. It is estimated about 10 million immigrants are living in the U.S. illegally and without valid documents.
"While overall (prosecutorial discretion) closures to date have been much lower than what the administration originally had led the immigration community to expect, the cumulative count keeps rising and there is as yet no sign of any real drop off in day-to-day closures," according to a report by the nonprofit.
Oklahoma immigration cases are handled out of the Dallas office, with judges holding court about one week a month in Oklahoma City. Prosecutors have closed 14 cases using discretion, according to the nonprofit.
Leading the country in closures under the program is Los Angeles with 707 cases closed. Second is the Denver court with 546 case closures and San Francisco third with 487 closures.
"(Prosecutorial discretion) closures generally have involved cases that have been waiting longer than other types of closures," the report states. "PD closures even take longer than the average time for immigration judges to grant relief - cases that typically take longer than any other type."
On average, it took 803 days between the date charges were filed in immigration court and when the prosecutorial discretion closure took place, the nonprofit found. This fiscal year, the average wait for an immigration court closure is 385 days.
The nonprofit, based at Syracuse University, obtained the data through Freedom of Information requests.
In addition, the nonprofit found that 95 percent of the cases closed through prosecutorial discretion had an attorney. Immigrants do not have a right to an attorney, but one can be present as representation.
Among the cases closed in this program, for 64 percent, the most serious violation charged by ICE as the basis for removal was "entry without inspection," the nonprofit found. In an additional 34 percent, some other immigration violation was charged.
None had been charged with terrorism or being a national security risk. Less than 2 percent had an ICE charge alleging a criminal activity as the basis of seeking deportation, the nonprofit found.
The largest number of prosecutorial discretion closures by country of origin was 3,060 from Mexico, followed by Guatemala at 476 and El Salvador at 357.
Use of Prosecutorial Discretion
Before December 2011: 13
December 2011: 191
January 2012: 610
February 2012: 684
March 2012: 1,002
April 2012: 943
May 2012: 1,138
June 2012: 1,103
Original Print Headline: Immigration enforcement taking new approach
Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376