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Who goes and who might stay? ICE deportation reviews get underway

Homeland Security officials are beginning the process of reviewing deportation cases, as announced in August, and starting a training program for agents and prosecutors to ensure all are on board with the agency's new deportation criteria. The idea is to review some 300,000 cases, separating immigrants who have criminal records or pose a security risk from those who don't. The process could spare many with clean records from deportation, although with no provision for legal status, what happens to them after that is still up in the air.

Guiding the reviews is a June 17 memo from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement director John Morton that urged the use of prosecutorial discretion on a case-by-case basis, with those who had been here since they were minors, members of the military and others with a clear background considered a "low priority" for removal. Today, ICE released a series of "next steps" in a statement. The highlights, abridged:

Prosecutorial Discretion Training: Today, ICE launches a "comprehensive training program on the appropriate use" of the guidelines set forth in the June 17 memo, consisting of "scenario-based training that emphasizes how the Prosecutorial Discretion Memorandum should be utilized in order to focus immigration enforcement resources on ICE priorities." All ICE agents and attorneys are to have completed the training by Jan. 13.

Review of Incoming Cases: ICE attorneys nationwide have been directed to immediately review all incoming immigration court cases to "help reduce inefficiencies that delay the removal of criminal aliens and other priority cases by preventing new low priority cases from clogging the immigration court dockets." The idea is to identify those who are a priority for deportation and those who are not, and who could be granted a reprieve. The pilot program's initial test run will end Jan. 13.

Review of Cases Pending in Immigration Court: Homeland Security and the Department of Justice will launch pilot programs Dec. 4 in Denver and Baltimore to review deportation cases that are already pending in immigration court, though the reviews will be limited to immigrants who are not being held in detention.

The reviews will take place over the next two months, after which the agency will determine how to go about expanding the program.

Critical to who gets deported and who doesn't are the criteria first established in the June memo. Beyond a written statement, ICE officials weren't providing interviews today on the review program, or on any related documents that some groups have been circulating as news of the program has made the rounds.

One document being circulated by immigrant advocates included a list of "criteria for review." On this list, among those ineligible for leniency are immigrants who have a conviction for "illegal entry, illegal re-entry, or immigration fraud."

While not everyone caught crossing the border illegally is prosecuted, in parts of the U.S.-Mexico border where the zero-tolerance enforcement program known as Operation Streamline is implemented, even first-time illegal border crossers face federal criminal charges.

ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice in Los Angeles couldn't comment on or confirm the list, but provided a written statement reiterating that "there is an on-going Administration-wide effort to focus immigration enforcement resources on those convicted of crimes, recent border crossers, and egregious immigration law violators."

Here is the "criteria for review" list as forwarded by NDLON:

In its story today, the New York Times pointed out that those who qualify for prosecutorial discretion as part of the review process "will have their cases closed, but not dismissed," the story reads, meaning their cases could be reopened. They would be allowed to remain in the country but would not be granted legal status, leaving their future uncertain.

Since the promised reviews were announced in August, the Obama administration has been criticized for having an uneven approach to its new policy, with the cases of many who would qualify for prosecutorial discretion continuing to move through the deportation pipeline. Some have been granted reprieves, often after supporters mounted campaigns to get government officials' ear, while others have continued to be deported. It's still unclear what will happen to those who qualify for leniency, but are in the final stages of the deportation process.

Meanwhile, those who meet the criteria as high priorities for deportation will have their removal expedited, according to the plan. In fiscal year 2011, which ended September 30, ICE deported a record 396,906 people, 55 percent of whom had convictions for felonies or misdemeanors.