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Young children brought to the United States by undocumented immigrants will be among those least likely to face deportation under new administrative guidelines announced Thursday by the Department of Homeland Security and the White House.
In a letter addressed to Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said the new direction is a way to lighten the load on law enforcement's push to target dangerous, undocumented immigrants with criminal backgrounds living in the United States.
"The President has said on numerous occasions that it makes no sense to expend our resources on low-priority cases, such as individuals ... who were brought to this country as young children and know no other home," Napolitano wrote. "From a law enforcement and public safety perspective, DHS enforcement resources must continue to be focused on our highest priorities."
Durbin, in a statement, praised the move.
"The Obama Administration has made the right decision in changing the way they handle deportations of DREAM Act students," Durbin said. "These students are the future doctors, lawyers, teachers and, maybe, Senators, who will make America stronger. We need to be doing all we can to keep these talented, dedicated, American students here, not wasting increasingly precious resources sending them away to countries they barely remember."
The directional shift will allow immigration judges to determine on a case-by-case basis whether those that are low priority deportations will need to be removed. Estimates are the new policy could affect more than 300,000 of the nation's more than 11.2 million undocumented immigrants.
Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center, welcomed the news but also said there is a need to continue on a path for comprehensive immigration reform.
"The creation of an interagency working group and the expansion of prosecutorial discretion guidance is a critical step toward slowing down the deportation of immigrants who have so much to give to this country," she said.
Among those who might benefit from the new policy would be David Morales, a 20-year-old West Valley City resident who is facing deportation after he was picked up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents while traveling to Louisiana for seminary school last year. He was arrested and detained for allegedly being in the country illegally, even though he was brought here by his parents when he was 9.
He is currently awaiting a hearing in immigration court and his case has been a cause for The Salt Lake Dream Team, an activist group.
Diego Ibanez, who is one of the team's leaders, said the letter caught them off guard.
"It was like a win that came unexpectedly," he said. "It was almost like, 'What do we do now?' "
He also said that even with the letter, there is still a need for the DREAM Act to become law and they will continue to fight for immigrant rights.
Napolitano's letter also made that point clear, saying the new policy isn't a substitute for the DREAM Act. She urged Congress to pass it.
"Thus, this process will not alleviate the need for passage of the DREAM Act or for larger reforms to our immigration laws," Napolitano wrote.
The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act passed the U.S. House in December 2010 but in the Senate it fell five votes short of the 60 needed to end debate and move it to a vote. Among those who didn't vote in December was the DREAM Act's initial and primary author: Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Hatch wrote the DREAM Act 10 years ago as a way to provide relief to children brought to the United States illegally by allowing them to attain legal status by graduating from high school, attending college or serving in the armed forces and keeping a clean record.
But Hatch didn't vote on the bill in December because he was attending a relative's graduation. He has said he still supports the DREAM Act, but believes it has been used by Democrats for political leverage. Hatch is also likely facing a challenge to his seat by tea party favorite Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, a DREAM Act opponent. His office declined to comment on the letter.
Hatch, who was traveling in southern Utah, issued a statement through spokeswoman Heather Barney.
"Senator Hatch will be looking at what Secretary Napolitano has proposed, and what impact it will have on Utah and our nation," she said.
Cherilyn Eagar, co-founder for the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration and a Republican running for Congress, said the move wasn't a welcome one.
"We have to keep in mind that the DREAM Act didn't make it through the constitutional process," Eagar said. "So why is the president and his administration ignoring the will of the people?"
She also said the move to prioritize undocumented immigrants with criminal records ignores those who have committed crimes but haven't been caught namely those who use fraudulent Social Security numbers and victimize U.S. citizens.