Obama administration changes deportation focus

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Under fire for its stepped-up deportation program, the Obama administration said Friday it will take a number of steps intended to focus on criminal aliens and make it less likely illegal immigrants without convictions are deported.

John Morton, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the arm of the Homeland Security Department that handles immigration in the interior of the country, said he is delegating prosecutorial discretion to lawyers to decide whether to pursue cases. He also said he has created an advisory panel to recommend how to change the deportation program, known as Secure Communities, that has caused consternation within the immigrant-rights community.

Under Secure Communities illegal immigrants can be identified and put in deportation proceedings when they are arrested, but Mr. Morton said he is “strongly considering” changing that in the case of minor crimes and traffic offenses, so that illegal immigrants are only targeted once they are convicted of another offense.

“What this is really about is who we remove from the country. This is about how do we prioritize limited resources,” Mr. Morton said.

The moves are likely to be controversial on Capitol Hill, where Republicans control the House and have called for stricter enforcement.

But the changes could help ease concerns of a number of Democratic governors who have said they do not wish to participate in Secure Communities for fear that it hurts their own law enforcement efforts.

Immigrant-rights groups, though, called the changes “superficial.”

“The only sensible solution is for President Obama to rein in DHS and call for a moratorium on Secure Communities,” said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition.

The Obama administration has stepped up deportations substantially, hitting a record 392,862 in fiscal year 2010. But the administration says it’s already tried to shift the focus to those with criminal convictions, who now make up about half of deportations. Under President George W. Bush about two-thirds of those deported did not have criminal convictions.

In addition to the changes if focus, Mr. Morton said he is imposing new rules that limit the amount of time someone can be held on an immigration detainer to 48 hours.

The advisory panel Mr. Morton is forming will be made up of immigrant-rights advocates, state and local law enforcement and a union representative of ICE employees.

He said the panel will come up with recommendations to answer the concerns raised over the program.

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