De Leon: Obama Administration Signals DREAMer Reprieve

dream act activist

Supporters of the DREAM Act were disappointed in the failure of the federal bill to garner 60 Senate votes in 2010. (Photo: dreamactivist/flickr)

On Thursday Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano sent a letter to 22 Senators and White House Intergovernmental Affairs Director Cecila Muñoz issued a statement, both in essence saying that undocumented children and youth as well as others not deemed to be serious criminal threats will not be deported.

Napolitano’s letter announced that the Obama Administration has established a new process for handling deportation cases of DREAM Act-eligible students and other individuals.

The process calls for a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Justice (DOJ) working group to develop specific criteria to identify low-priority removal cases that should be considered for prosecutorial discretion. These criteria will be based on the “Morton Memo” which explains how ICE personnel should use their time, energy and resources in deporting undocumented immigrants and lists the “positive factors” that should be taken into consideration when deciding who should be deported.

These factors favor individuals who have lived in the U.S. since childhood, minors, the elderly, pregnant and nursing women, victims of serious crimes, veterans and members of the armed services, and individuals with serious disabilities or health problems. The working group will also develop a process for reviewing the 300,000 cases pending before immigration and federal courts that meet these specific criteria.

Cases scheduled for a hearing within the next couple of months and all 300,000 pending cases will be reviewed individually by ICE attorneys. These cases will be closed except in extraordinary circumstances, where the reviewing attorney must get the approval of a supervisor to move forward. Individuals whose cases are closed will be able to apply for certain immigration benefits, including work authorization. All applications for benefits will also be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

Muñoz’s statement explained that this new strategy was developed

“to make sure we use those resources [that Congress gives the Executive Branch] in a way that puts public safety and national security first. If you were running a law enforcement agency anywhere in the world, you would target those who pose the greatest harm before those who do not. Our immigration enforcement work is focused the same way.”

This is welcome news. If the new process is fully and properly implemented, then DREAMers and other individuals whose cases meet the criteria outlined in the Morton Memo will no longer fear separation from their loved ones and adopted country.

Many questions remain however. Aside from work authorization, what other immigration benefits will be afforded to those whose cases have been dismissed? Will undocumented students be eligible for federal student loans?  What about the the millions of others who are not in deportation proceedings?

Comprehensive immigration reform would once and for all solve the many problems that beset our immigration system. But this is nonetheless a step in the right direction.

You can follow Erwin de Leon on Twitter or read his blog.

Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation.