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Grijalva, House Dems demand review of ICE deportation policies

U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva and 39 other members of Congress have asked Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson about accusations that officials may be deporting people who should be protected by immigration policies announced by President Barack Obama in November.

In a letter sent Monday, Grijalava asked for the agency to implement "robust accountability mechanisms," and to answer questions outlining how U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement decides when to deport someone. This follows a series of complaints from advocacy groups and immigration lawyers that since February ICE has failed to follow new enforcement priorities and, in some cases targeted individuals who were not considered priorities for deportation. 

"This is about more than ensuring the federal government lives up to the spirit of its directives," Grijalva said in a statement. 'This is about minimizing uncalled-for human suffering and ensuring law enforcement targets the individuals who actually pose a threat to our society – not just those who aspire to join it."

Freshman Arizona Democrat Ruben Gallego joined Grijalva in signing the letter.

During a televised speech last November, Obama announced a set of executive actions which would defer deportation proceedings for up to 3.9 million people, according to the Pew Research Center.

"You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law," said Obama, laying out a series of criteria that illegal immigrants must meet to earn a reprieve from deportation. The changes extended the deferred action period for young immigrants from June 15, 2007, to January 1, 2010, and removed age restrictions. The action will also extend the employment authorization for so-called DREAMers from two years to three years. 

The president also announced that parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents could apply for deferral under a program called  Deferred Action for Parents of Americans or DAPA. 

Obama also announced three new priority categories for deportation.

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Under the policy, outlined by the DHS in a memorandum titled “Policies for the Apprehension, Detention, and Removal of Undocumented Immigrants,” officials would continue to focus on threats to national security and border security, but would close or otherwise defer deportation proceedings for thousands of cases. 

However, in February that program ground to a halt after federal Judge Andrew Hanen in Texas ordered the program halted pending a lawsuit by 26 states, including Arizona, which argues that Obama overstepped his constitutional authority. 

While federal lawyers have attempted to overturn the order in federal appeals court, the halt has left millions of immigrants in legal limbo. 

In late February, Matthew Kolken, an immigration lawyer based in Buffalo, N.Y., received reports from immigration lawyers that clients eligible for deferred action were deported after reporting to ICE while on supervised release.  

Lawyers across the country discussed similar scenarios and found a consistent pattern that ICE officials were in many cases no longer honoring the prosecutorial discretion as outlined by DHS. 

The United We Dream Network, an immigrant rights advocacy group, published a report in April tallying 31 cases over the last four months when ICE officials refused to grant stays, or close cases.

These complaints are "particularly worrisome" the group said, "because DHS assured immigrant communities" that the new enforcement priorities would fix complaints about the previous system of prosecutorial discretion established by ICE Director John Morton in 2011. 

That previous system the group said "did not consider factors such as family, education, military service, and other community ties and, that these mitigating equities very rarely overcame any criminal history or record."

In a February statement, ICE Director Sarah Saldaña wrote that the new DHS policy was "in full force and effect, and ICE continues to effectively use its resources by implementing the secretary’s priorities directive." Saldaña later reaffirmed this message during a congressional hearing in April, saying that the priorities were "directed in a rational way."

"I can’t enforce all the laws, but I can enforce priorities," she said. 

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During a town hall in February, Obama reaffirmed the use of prosecutorial discretion by Homeland Security and said there will be "consequences" if immigration officials refused to follow the policy.

While there will be "one or two, three instances where people apparently haven’t gotten the message," Obama said DHS was "absolutely committed to this new prioritization."

"The immigration system has always been dependent on individual offices and how they interpret certain guidance," said Maurice "Mo" Goldman, an immigration attorney in Tucson during an interview in February. "Discretion is the key word here. In some cases they don't have as much, but when it comes to enforcement issues, it really does matter who you're dealing with." 

Part of the problem stems from especially broad definitions of criminal behavior that may shift immigrants into higher priorities for arrest and deportation.

In March, the agency trumpeted the results of Operation Cross Check, a national effort to seize "convicted criminal aliens" that resulted in the arrests of more than 2,000 people, including 33 in Arizona. The agency wrote that the effort resulted in the arrests of "individuals who had multiple criminal convictions" including "58 gang members, and 89 convicted sex offenders" and more than 1,000 were convicted felons. However, the agency also noted in the same release that the "vast majority of the misdemeanor convictions were for driving under the influence."  

"ICE considers DUI offenders, particularly repeat offenders, to be a significant threat to public safety threat," the agency said. 

Data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a nonpartisan research project supported by Syracuse University, illustrates this clearly. 

In April 2014, TRAC reviewed data from 2008-2013 and found that while the agency increased the deportation of "convicted criminals" by 87 percent, this was driven almost exclusively by an increase in the prosecution and deportation of people with traffic violations and convictions for immigration offenses.

For January-March 2015, this trend remains true.

In Arizona, out of nearly 4,000 deportation proceedings, nearly 79 percent were because of immigration offenses. Only a handful of people were deported because of aggravated felonies or "other criminal charges."

Grijalva praised the president for doing his part to "right our broken immigration system."

"Now the responsibility of proper implementation falls to DHS, and we need to know beyond the shadow of a doubt that harmful practices of the past aren’t continuing today under the guise of new directives," Grijalva said.

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

In January, legal clinic volunteer Myrna Velasco helps Karina Monter, Jocelyn Carino and Raul Carino organize documents for their application to the deferred action program, now held up by a lawsuit in federal court.

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