Next week, the Department of Homeland Security will roll out a pilot program intended to speed up the deportation of immigrants with criminal records by weeding out low-priority cases. It’s a sensible plan, and one that could restore some sanity to a deportation system that wastes time with harmless immigrants and thereby allows dangerous ones to escape its attention.
Under the pilot program, teams of prosecutors in Baltimore and Denver will review all pending immigration cases in those cities and then decide whether to issue temporary reprieves to the elderly, students, children, victims of domestic crimes and those with a close relative who is a U.S. citizen. Reprieves would be limited to those without criminal convictions. If all goes well, the program would be expanded nationwide in January.
Until recently, government attorneys were required, with rare exceptions, to treat immigrants convicted of serious crimes with the same urgency as those who are merely here illegally. The new guidelines will allow them to place the high-priority cases — those involving criminals — on a fast track for a hearing before a judge. At the same time, this could help free up overburdened immigration courts by reducing dockets.
This isn’t the first time the Obama administration has promised to implement reviews and prioritize. Last summer, Homeland Security officials pledged to evaluate about 300,000 deportation cases already filed in immigration court. So far, the results have been less than stellar. The American Immigration Lawyers Association released a report that found the new rules were applied unevenly. In San Francisco, for example, a 14-year-old boy facing deportation to Mexico because he brought a pellet gun to school received a last-minute reprieve, yet an undocumented immigrant with no criminal history was deported even though he too qualified for a stay because he had spent 22 years here and had a U.S.-born child.
Federal officials have shrugged off the results, saying the new rules are a work in progress. However, only Congress can provide a more concrete solution, by enacting legislation that both secures borders and offers a path to legalization for those already here. But the policy, if evenly and thoughtfully implemented, could introduce reason and proportion into a system too often lacking in both.