Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Mixed feelings about deportation reviews, even from 'low priority' immigrants

Photo by Zach K/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Almost six months ago, the Obama administration announced a shift in its deportation policy, with Homeland Security officials promising to review some 300,000 deportation cases. The plan was to weed out immigrants deemed a low priority for deportation, allowing officials to focus on removing those with criminal records.

According to the prosecutorial discretion guidelines established, among those who stood a better chance of being allowed to stay were undocumented immigrants living in the United States since they were children, those who pursued a higher education, members of military families, and otherwise law-abiding people with deep ties to the U.S.

Immigration officials began poring through case files last month as part of a pilot program in Denver and Baltimore, and the results are in: Of some 11,682 cases reviewed, about 1,600 people will be spared deportation, allowing them to stay in the country. Immigrant advocates have mostly cheered the news; critics have called it a "backdoor amnesty" and an election-year ploy by the Obama administration to win Latino voters.

Stuck in the middle are some of the very people who fit the low-priority criteria, as plans move forward to expand the deportation reviews nationwide. There are several catches - and undocumented people who qualify to stay don't get legal status as part of the deal.

Among those reacting to the news today were Erick Huerta, a 27-year-old East L.A. College journalism student, and Nancy Meza, 24, a recent UCLA graduate. Both are undocumented, and both came to the U.S. with their families as young children. Both have pursued a college degree and have strong ties here. Meza, in particular, is the only non-U.S. citizen among her siblings.

Both young people are active in student immigrant rights, so they've been following the story. In this joint Q&A, they discuss why they're watching the deportation reviews with mixed feelings.

M-A: So how good of news is this? Might you qualify if the reviews are expanded?

Meza: I've never been placed in deportation, so I'm not protected. That's the contradictory part. In order to have some sort of protection, you would have to go through deportation and be one of the very that qualifies for prosecutorial discretion.

You have to be lucky enough to have your case reviewed and accepted. You currently only have some sort of protection if you are in deportation proceedings.

M-A: So the only way you would qualify for a review is to land in deportation. What would you do if you did?

Huerta: A lot of groups focus on informing people, just basic stuff. If I were to get caught, I'd let them know that there is some sort of process, that they can check to see that you are not a priority. That they should not focus on you, because the Obama administration has made policy changes.

But people are still going to fall through the cracks...even when they qualify.

M-A: About 1,600 people qualified to have their deportation halted in the Baltimore and Denver pilots, but they don't get legal status as a result. Their cases are essentially dormant and can be reopened. How do yo feel about this?

Huerta: I think it’s almost avoiding the problem. If you need to fix the roof, you aren’t going to wait to fix it until it collapses on a rainy day. If would be really stressful if I were in their situation. I would be in hyper-sensitive mode. They would just have all these people on the back burner. They are there, they aren’t doing anything wrong, and there’s nothing happening for them that is positive or negative. It’s at a standstill.

Meza: It just shows the need for the president and this administration to stick to their promise of immigration reform...they have no way to legalize. Even if you get to stay, there is no way you can legalize. It's great that they were able to stop their deportation, but they remain in a state of limbo.

This is an election year, and the president intends to cater to the Latino community. But for us this is not an election year issue, this is a human rights issue.

The review process is a complicated one; a piece in the New York Times explained how it works this way:
After being chosen for discretion, an immigrant must pass background checks against federal criminal and national security databases. Then ICE prosecutors offer to file a joint motion with the immigrant to close the deportation case. If both sides agree, the approval of an immigration judge is relatively quick.

The deportation then becomes a “sleeping beauty,” one ICE prosecutor said; it is closed and off the docket, but in theory it can be reopened at any time.