After months of complaints from immigrant advocates, the Obama administration promised in August that immigration authorities would start focusing their scarce resources on finding and deporting serious criminals, and largely leave alone immigrants whose only offense was crossing the border illegally.
To prove the point, more than 1,900 Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials spent the last week arresting nearly 3,000 criminal illegal immigrants in a nationwide sweep.
Everyone arrested had at least one criminal conviction and more than half were convicted of at least one felony, including attempted murder, rape and kidnapping. They will now face deportation.
ICE Director John Morton said Wednesday the roundup was the largest ICE effort to hunt down criminal illegal immigrants.
"This is what we should be doing; this is good law enforcement," Morton said. "It makes sense to be removing people who are committing crimes who are here illegally first and foremost."
There are still an estimated 1 million criminal illegal immigrants in the country, Morton said.
ICE has been widely criticized in recent months for using fingerprints collected in local jails to identify illegal immigrants. Many of the people identified through the Secure Communities program have not been convicted of a crime, only charged, and have been arrested for traffic violations or other misdemeanors.
In an Aug. 18 letter to a group of senators who have pushed for immigration reform, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said officials from DHS and the Justice Department would review approximately 300,000 deportation cases pending in federal immigration court.
At the time, officials said most non-criminals and those who do not pose a threat to public safety or national security would likely have their cases put on hold indefinitely. Those people would be allowed to stay in the country and apply for a work permit.
Critics have argued that the decision to delay some deportation cases amounts to amnesty for thousands of illegal immigrants.
Morton said Wednesday the review has not started.
But agents in the field have been instructed to use discretion in evaluating who should be arrested and put in the system for deportation. In a June memo, Morton said discretion could be used in a variety of cases, including for people with no criminal record and young people brought to the United States illegally as children.
And some ICE offices and immigration judges around the country have already put a hold on a handful of cases.
In Maryland, Florinda Lorenzo, a 28-year-old illegal immigrant from Guatemala, was set to be deported in August after being arrested on a charge that she illegally sold a phone card to an undercover police officer, a misdemeanor. She served 16 hours of community service. In July she was given a reprieve and told she would have another year before she may finally have to leave the country.
Zorayda Moreira-Smith, a lawyer for Casa de Maryland, an advocacy group that has provided legal help to Lorenzo and others, said some of the center's clients have benefited from the new discretion policy. But others are still facing imminent deportation.
"It's really frustrating on our end," Moreira-Smith said of pending cases.
And Wednesday's announcement does little to clear up confusion over how many of her clients may eventually be able to stay, she said
"Because they came out with a press release, or press conference, that doesn't say anything about (other immigrants) who don't have a criminal record," Moreira-Smith said. "It doesn't resolve anything."
Morton said Wednesday while ICE officials are focusing on finding and deporting criminals some non-criminals may still face deportation because ICE has not suspended enforcement operations for everyone else.
"We don't have the power and are not going to suspend enforcement for an entire class of individuals in a broad way," Morton said.
A task force charged with reviewing Secure Communities has recommended that ICE use it only to identify serious criminals. Morton said he will meet with the task force before deciding if any changes should be made to the controversial program.
Alicia A. Caldwell can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/acaldwellap