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Obama Quietly Shifts Immigration Enforcement Emphasis to Dangerous Criminals

The new strategy isn't pleasing activists on either side of the issue.

The Obama administration has changed the nation's immigration enforcement strategy in ways that will reduce the threat of deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants and will likely blunt the impact of any state laws designed to deport vast numbers of people.


The changes are the little-discussed byproducts of the administration's well-publicized decision to focus its deportation efforts on immigrants who have committed serious crimes.

To remove the "worst of the worst," the administration reasons, it can't allow the nation's immigration courts and detention centers to remain clogged with generally law-abiding immigrants who have lived in the country for a long time and probably would be legalized under comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

The administration's strategy has been revealed in recent months through internal memos, testimony and new guidelines that direct deportation officers to generally refrain from deporting certain groups of immigrants.

  • In a June 30 memo (PDF), John Morton, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), stressed the new priorities to his officers around the country: Use the agency's limited resources to find and deport immigrants who have committed serious crimes rather than scoop up longtime undocumented immigrants who haven't.
  • On July 1, ICE's executive associate director of management, Daniel Ragsdale,  testified in the administration's lawsuit against Arizona's immigration law that ICE officers have been told to "exercise discretion" when deciding whether to detain "long-time lawful permanent residents, juveniles, the immediate family members of U.S. citizens, veterans, members of the armed forces and their families, and others with illnesses or special circumstances." (P.11)
  • An internal memo leaked to the media in July discussed ways the administration could adjust existing regulations so certain groups, such as college students and the spouses of military personnel, could legalize their status or at least avoid deportation if Congress doesn't pass comprehensive immigration reform. The memo came from ICE's sister agency, U.S. Citizens and Immigration Service (USCIS), which rules on applications for visas, work permits and citizenship. USCIS played down the draft as a brainstorming device. Nonetheless, it underscored the administration's view that legalization was more appropriate than deportation for many people.
  • On Aug. 20, Morton  ordered (PDF) ICE officials to begin dismissing deportation cases against people who have credible immigration applications pending and haven't committed serious crimes. According  to the Houston Chronicle, immigration attorneys who went to court last month anticipating their clients' deportations were stunned to learn that many of the cases had been dismissed.
  • Perhaps the most dramatic shift in enforcement strategy was outlined in a  draft proposed directive (PDF) from Morton, posted last month on ICE's website for public comment. It would prohibit police from using misdemeanor traffic stops to flag people to ICE for deportation, even though traffic stops have been credited with increasing the number of deportations in recent years. Some exceptions would be made, including for immigrants with serious criminal records.

The president doesn't need congressional approval to make any of these changes because the executive branch has wide leeway in how it administers the laws Congress writes.

But the administration's new direction puts it on a collision course with those who believe the nation's immigration laws should be strictly enforced and that all illegal immigrants should be deported.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, the top Republican on the House immigration subcommittee, said that by making exceptions, ICE is "thumbing its nose at the law." And the union representing ICE's 7,000 enforcement officers has issued a unanimous no-confidence vote that singled out Morton and an assistant, saying their new detention and removal policies were "misguided and reckless initiatives, which could ultimately put many Americans at risk."

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