DENVER — In a trial run of a politically divisive program, U.S. prosecutors in Denver and Baltimore are reviewing thousands of deportation cases to determine which illegal immigrants might stay in the country - perhaps indefinitely - so officials can reduce a huge backlog by focusing mainly on detainees with criminal backgrounds or who are deemed threats to national security.
Federal deportation hearings for noncriminal defendants released from custody were suspended Dec. 5 for the review and resume this week. Similar reviews are planned across the country to allow U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to focus deportations of illegal immigrants on those with criminal records or those who have been deported previously.
While the immigration courtrooms in Denver have fallen silent, prosecutors had time to examine case files and check residency histories - such as whether someone was brought to the country as a child - as well as whether suspects had a criminal history.
In Denver, 25 ICE prosecutors and three managers spent their workdays during most of December and early this month poring over as many files in their caseload as possible, ICE spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez said.
"They come in on weekends," Ms. Gonzalez said. "They're looking at every case."
Officials have not released information on how many cases will be placed on low priority based on the review. When they're finished, cases of those who are here illegally but not deemed a threat to public safety or national security will be placed on administrative hold and the numbers will be released.
Citing tight budgets, Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano announced this summer that nearly 300,000 deportation cases would be reviewed to determine which could be closed through "prosecutorial discretion." Republicans have decried the policy as a backdoor way of granting amnesty to people who are living in the U.S. illegally.
"We simply cannot adjudicate all these cases that are pending," Ms. Gonzalez said. Some cases in Denver date to 1996, she said.
"It's a holiday for anybody in the country illegally," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, which opposes the initiative. "They're doing this with the intention of dismissing as many of them as they possibly can."
Several attempts at immigration reform have failed in recent years, including the so-called "Dream Act," which would have allowed some young illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to earn legal status if they went to college or joined the military.
In June, ICE Director John Morton announced that prosecutors and immigration agents would consider a defendant's length of time in the country, ties to the community, lack of criminal history and opportunity to qualify for some form of legal status in deciding whether to press for deportation.
Denver has about 7,800 deportation cases pending, while Baltimore has about 5,000. Hearings and deportations involving criminal immigrants continued in both Baltimore and Denver. The suspended hearings dealt only with noncriminal defendants.
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