Administration says it will conduct case-by-case review on deportation

Washington (CNN) — In a move that could shake up the U.S. immigration system,
the Department of Homeland Security is going to begin reviewing all 300,000
pending deportation cases in federal immigration courts to determine which
individuals meet specific criteria for removal and to focus on “our highest
priorities.”

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said the review will enhance public safety.
“Immigration judges will be able to more swiftly adjudicate high priority cases,
such as those involving convicted felons,” Napolitano wrote Thursday in a letter
to assistant majority leader Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and 21 other senators
including Indiana Republican Richard Lugar.

In April, Durbin and Lugar sent a letter to Napolitano asking her to stop
deportations of immigrant students who could earn legal status under the
DREAM Act — legislation that would give children of illegal immigrants a path
to citizenship through military service or college education.

Napolitano said the Obama administration has frequently pointed out “it makes no
sense to expend our enforcement resources on low-priority cases, such as
individuals… who were brought into this country as young children and know no
other home.”

Officials say immigration court dockets are clogged, putting public safety in
jeopardy, costing money, resources and time. They want to see DHS enforcement
resources diverted from illegal immigrants who don’t have criminal records to
individuals who pose a threat to public safety and national security.

A senior administration official, who requested anonymity because details of the
policy change had not yet been announced, told reporters 79% of deportations
involve people without a criminal record — people who have just entered the
country illegally or had been previously deported and re-entered.

Napolitano said the new policy change would not negate reforming immigration
laws and “will not alleviate the need for passage of the DREAM Act,” which would
give legal status to illegal immigrant students who attend college or join the
military. She added, “President Obama has called the DREAM Act the right thing
to do for the young people it would affect, and the right thing to do for the
country.”

But the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which advocates
changing policies to decrease the number of immigrants coming to the United
States, said in a statement on its website that the action by the Obama
administration “amounts to an administrative amnesty and a sweeping overhaul of
the nation’s immigration policy without approval by Congress.”

FAIR President Dan Stein said in the statement, “In essence, the administration
has declared that U.S. immigration is now virtually unlimited to anyone willing
to try to enter and only those who commit violent felonies after arrival are
subject to enforcement.”

Under the new process, a DHS and the Department of Justice working group will
develop specific criteria to identify low-priority removal cases that should be
considered for prosecutorial discretion, including cases with 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.

Durbin expressed support for the Obama administration announcement, saying in a
written statement that it was “the right decision” specifically as it relates to
students.

“These students are the future doctors, lawyers, teachers and maybe, senators,
who will make America stronger,” Durbin stated. “We need to be doing all we can
to keep these talented, dedicated, American students here, not wasting
increasingly precious resources sending them away to countries they barely
remember.”

Durbin’s statement added that when reviews of individual cases result in cases
being closed, those individuals “will be able to apply for certain immigration
benefits, including work authorization.”

Durbin’s statement did not elaborate on that aspect of the policy change, beyond
saying such applications for benefits would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

The National Day Laborer Organizing Network, an organization advocating improved
rights for day laborers, praised the move. “The administration had earned the
President the title of ‘Deporter-in-Chief.’ We hope the statement today
announcing review of the current caseload of victims of indiscriminate
enforcement is carried forth,” the group said in a news release.

CNN en Espanol’s Ione Molinares contributed to this report.