PHOENIX – A shake-up in immigration policy may lead to deportation proceedings being dropped for thousands of aliens who entered the United States illegally but are applying to stay in the country, officials said on Friday.
They said the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) seeks to end deportation proceedings against detained illegal immigrants who have applications pending to become legal U.S. residents, if agents determine they have no criminal history and do not present a security threat.
The policy shift emerged from an internal memorandum ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton sent last week to the agency's principal legal adviser and a director of enforcement and removal operations.
The memo was published by the New York Times on Friday and confirmed to Reuters by officials.
Morton said the policy aimed to reduce the backlog in immigration courts, where authorities identified some 17,000 cases last year that could be eliminated if ICE dropped removal proceedings against illegal immigrants who had applied for legal status and were very likely to get it.
The issue of what to do with nearly 11 million illegal immigrants living and working in the shadows in the United States has become an increasingly hot topic in the run up to the midterm elections in November, where Democratic control of Congress is on the line.
President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats back a comprehensive reform of immigration policy to tighten border security, while allowing illegal immigrants in good standing the chance to learn English, pay a fine and get on a path to citizenship.
Republicans say that policy is effectively "amnesty" and likely to encourage more illegal entrants.
The Obama administration has made a priority of arresting and deporting illegal immigrants convicted of crimes, more than 167,00 of whom have been removed so far this year.
ICE spokesman Richard Rocha said the policy shift outlined in the memorandum sought to enable the agency to prioritize "the arrest and removal of criminal aliens and those who pose a danger to national security."
"ICE is not engaged in a 'backdoor' amnesty and has placed more people in immigration proceedings this year than ever before," he added.
Americans are most concerned about a stuttering economy and high unemployment in the run up to the November 2 midterm elections, when voters will elect 435 members of the House of Representatives and fill 37 of the 100 seats in the Senate.
But illegal immigration has also been a contentious issue.
The Obama administration last month successfully sued to block key parts of a tough state law in Arizona requiring state and local police during the course of an arrest to investigate the immigration status of people they suspected were in the state illegally.
The measure, which sought to curb illegal immigration and smuggling-related crime in the state bordering Mexico, was backed by a solid majority of voters both in Arizona and across the United States.
But it came under heavy fire from civil rights and Latino groups concerned that in practice it would lead to profiling, and in court the administration said it intruded on what should be a matter of federal policy.
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