Pilot Program for Deportations in Denver Leaves Many Families in Legal Limbo

Once their deportation cases are closed, undocumented immigrants will continue to live here without legal status.

Raul Cardenas just had his deportation case suspended, but he doesn’t feel like much has changed.

“I still cannot work. I still cannot support my family. I could still be deported,” said Cardenas. “I feel like I’m useless.”

Cardenas is among a group of people who have been identified as “low priority” for deportation in a pilot program being launched this week in Denver that is being seen as a test of the Obama administration’s new deportation policy.

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Under the six-week pilot program, prosecutors in Denver’s Office of the Chief Counsel will review the immigration court’s entire docket of cases, which number about 7,700. They are suspending immigration hearings for six weeks in order to conduct the review.

The pilot program, which is also being launched in Baltimore, is part of the administration’s new national focus on prioritizing the deportation of those with criminal records. In a memo in June, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano encouraged the use of “prosecutorial discretion” so that the deportation cases of those who are identified as “low-priority” could be screened out of the system and put on hold.

Laura Lichter, president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) in Denver, called the review process a kind of “triage.”

“If properly implemented,” she said, “the current review will cut out those cases that common sense would agree are not high enforcement priorities, allowing ICE to focus on serious threats to our communities.”

But immigration advocates say that although it is a step in the right direction, the review doesn’t address the larger problem: Once their deportation cases are closed, undocumented immigrants will continue to live here without legal status.

“They’re putting the triage band-aid on our family, but they haven’t actually treated what the problem is,” says Judy Cárdenas, Raul’s wife. 

Raul had worked for the same company for eight years when he found out the ID number on file for him belonged to a young girl. The father of three, two step sons and a daughter, turned himself in to take care of the ID question. After an hour and a half of being in custody, he was put on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hold.

Raul’s case may have been closed, but that doesn’t solve the Cardenas family’s problem.

“Now we're even more in limbo than we were before,” says Judy, “because Raul can't leave the United States but he can't work to support his family here.”

The pilot program also doesn’t change the “deep structural problem” of an immigration system that is “built right now to cast a wide net,” explains Julie Gonzalez, director of organizing for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition.

The Obama administration, Gonzalez says, has taken a smart step in launching a case-by-case review to focus on deporting criminals. “And yet, today out in the street, across the state of Colorado, there are still local law enforcement officials who are forced to report people who are arrested for low-level traffic offenses, are forced to continue casting that wide net.” 

The Secure Communities program, for example, which requires local police to share the fingerprints of all arrestees with federal immigration authorities, was originally touted as a program that would focus on deporting criminals. Yet, according to ICE data, nearly 60 percent of those deported under the program either had a minor misdemeanor or no criminal record. 

In Denver, the case-by-case review beginning this week could present a potential for abuse, Gonzalez warns, as fraudulent notary publics and others try to use the announcement to promise people legal status in exchange for money. 

“This is a very vulnerable population and people are desperate,” says Lichter of AILA. “It’s very easy for people to take advantage of the situation.” To help Denver residents avoid these scams, AILA is providing immigrants information about what the pilot program is, and what it isn’t: a path to legalization.

“What happens to the people if their case is closed? Will there be a way for them to support themselves?” asks Lichter. “Right now, this is a big open question.”

Elena Shore is an editor, Latino media monitor and translator for NAM. She graduated from Oberlin College in Spanish and Latin American Studies in 2001. She has written articles on immigration and Latino issues in English and Spanish, and monitors and translates stories from the Spanish-language press. Her work has appeared in Latino media outlets including La Opinion, La Raza and El Mensajero.