By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 28, 2010; A3
The Obama administration is moving to release thousands of illegal immigrants detained at facilities across the country if the immigrants have a potential path to legal residency.
The move could affect as many as 17,000 immigrants who entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. It comes amid a push by ICE to focus on illegal immigrants who have committed crimes, rather than seek to deport all illegal immigrants. Officials say that the shift is needed to reduce massive clogs in the nation's immigration courts - where detainees wait for months or years before their cases are decided - and to use deportation as a tool for public safety.
"ICE is dedicating unprecedented resources to the removal of criminal aliens," said Richard Rocha, deputy press secretary at the immigration enforcement agency. "The focus now is clearly on criminal aliens. . . . We want to ensure convicted criminal aliens are not only removed from the community, but from the country as well."
Rocha said that the deportation of criminals accounts for about half of all removals, an all-time high. If the immigrants released under the new policy have their applications for legalization turned down, ICE will resume removal proceedings.
While immigration advocates applauded the move and said it reflected a more humane approach to illegal immigrants in detention, Republican lawmakers and groups that favor stricter limits on immigration denounced it as a form of back-door amnesty.
The number of immigrants being detained in the United States has doubled in the last decade, to 369,000 annually. There are now about 248,000 cases awaiting review in backlogged immigration courts, according to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, which tracks immigration statistics.
The increases have triggered huge logistical problems and exposed successive administrations to charges that those who are in the country illegally, a violation of civil statutes, are being exposed to unnecessarily harsh conditions.
Simultaneously, ICE officials maintain, clogged immigration courts divert officials from identifying, tracking down and deporting illegal immigrants who have committed violent crimes and other offenses.
In a memo dated Aug. 20, ICE Director John Morton wrote that as many as 17,000 illegal immigrants have pending applications for legal status with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, ICE's sister agency within the Department of Homeland Security.
As those applications are being reviewed, immigrants in detention who do not have criminal backgrounds might be eligible for release, Morton said. Local ICE officials have discretion in releasing detainees, he added, and would take into consideration a number of factors, including "national security and public safety."
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports tighter controls on immigration, warned that the move would demoralize agents working for ICE and also send the wrong message about illegal immigration.
Krikorian acknowledged that the government has to set immigration enforcement priorities, but said the shortfall in resources stems partly from the Obama administration's not seeking sufficient means to expedite the review of cases and the deportation of detainees.
"Simply letting them go sends a harmful message to immigration agents and to illegal immigrants," he said. Agents feel "their work is not valued. The message sent to the illegals is that even if you are put into deportation proceedings, we will let you go."