The Houston Chronicle reported over the weekend that local immigration judges have recently been allowed to exercise some discretion and throw out deportation cases of people who have clean criminal records and have been in the country for longer than two years. It's a rare sign of the Obama administration following through with its vow to keep deportation efforts focused on convicted criminals.
The Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review recorded 217 such immigration case dismissals in Houston in the month of August, up from a couple dozen in July.
The how's and why's of whose cases are being reviewed and thrown out are a secret matter. The criteria for and policies around case dismissals are ever-shifting and fairly political. The agency isn't broadcasting these policy shifts. Instead, people learn of Department of Homeland Security policy from attorneys who are representing clients.
In recent weeks, some immigration attorneys reported the dismissals have slowed somewhat, while others reported they now have to ask ICE trial attorneys to exercise prosecutorial discretion in order to have their cases dismissed. Others, however, said they are still being approached by government attorneys seeking to file joint motions for case dismissal.
"They're still doing it," said immigration attorney Steve Villarreal. "They're just doing it quietly."
Deportations under President Obama, however, have soared to record highs. Even though people with criminal convictions on their records make up a higher percentage of those who get deported, a significant portion of those caught up in the deportation dragnet are people with either no criminal record at all, or people guilty of minor, nonviolent infractions.
Since 1996, when a set of immigration laws expanded the criteria that made someone deportable, immigration judges have seen their caseloads multiply exponentially even though there aren't necessarily more immigration judges to handle the expanding caseload. And the docket has not thinned with President Obama. Immigration courts are famously backlogged; according to the Houston Chronicle article, the downtown Houston offices are already scheduling hearings for 2012.
Call it a matter of efficiency or practicality, but don't call it clemency. People whose deportation orders are dismissed don't get to update their paperwork or change their status. They get to stay in the country, but don't gain any legal status, nor do they win any legal protection from future legal action, should the government choose to go after them in the future.