Obama's new deportation policy is PR spin, experts say

Barack Obama announced a change in deportation policy, but experts are doubtful.

Barack Obama announced a change in deportation policy, but experts are doubtful.

The Obama administration announced last week that it will review "low-priority" deportation cases and allow certain illegal immigrants to remain in the country with work permits.

Reporters across the country jumped on the news, with many news outlets breathlessly reporting that the Obama administration will stop all deportations of immigrants without criminal records.

But Minnesota immigration experts point out that the feds' announcement echoes old memos about "enforcement priorities" and probably won't lead to much change in practice.

At the heart of the government's announced policy change last week is prosecutorial discretion, the fact that prosecutors have a choice whether to press charges or not in any given case.

In June, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton released a memo declaring immigrants without criminal records to be "low priority" for deportation. That memo also cited nearly a decades' worth of official documents to the same effect.

Obama has long insisted that ICE's "priority" for deportations is criminal aliens, which isn't true by the numbers. Almost 400,000 immigrants were deported last year, and less than half of them had criminal records.

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and the White House now claim that the government will actually show leniency to non-criminal aliens while focusing on criminal immigrants, which has set off a firestorm of criticism from groups calling it "backdoor amnesty" while immigration reform advocates have shown support for the change.

Local immigration experts, however, suggest that supporters and critics alike are getting worked up over nothing.

"ICE has had prosecutorial discretion and has had the capacity to prioritize the deportation of criminal immigrants, and I think the evidence shows they don't do that," Advocates for Human Rights Director Michele Garnett McKenzie says. "I don't think there's any reason to expect enforcement practices to change."

Michele Garnett McKenzie doesn't see the change in policy.

Michele Garnett McKenzie doesn't see the change in policy.

John Gutterman, an immigration advocate with Workers Interfaith Network, is skeptical of the government's new "priority" since the government hasn't announced how it will supervise its deportation prosecutions to ensure that only criminals are deported.

"One of the problems with the memo on prosecutorial discretion is oversight. There's a lot of prosecutors around the country that are charged with making that a reality," he says.

McKenzie says ICE's past suggests current deportation practices will continue unabated.

"There's nothing in the history of immigration enforcement that gives me confidence this is a departure or a new day for immigration in our country," McKenzie added. "It's going to be business as usual."

She suggests politics played a key role in the government's announcement. The Department of Homeland Security has faced a massive backlash from several states this summer over its "Secure Communities" program, which was originally portrayed as an agreement between the federal government and several states to share information on immigrants who are booked into jails.

When several states -- Illinois, New York, and Massachusetts -- began pulling out, the feds claimed that the program had never been optional.

"This strikes me as damage control around Secure Communities," McKenzie said.

City Pages reached out to the local ICE office and was re-directed to the Department of Homeland Security, which did not return a request for comment.