SAN DIEGO -- The head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Thursday that he wanted to give field attorneys more latitude to decide which immigrants to target for deportation.
Agency Director John Morton said he was seriously considering an order that would give ICE lawyers more independence and more discretion "not to assert the scope of the agency's authority in each and every case." It would extend to the Customs and Border Protection agency, which arrests hundreds of thousands of people each year along the U.S.-Mexico border.
He didn't elaborate and declined to answer questions after his remarks to the American Immigration Lawyers Association, leaving some uncertainty about how much impact his edict would have on the 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. Still, his comments drew strong applause from the attorneys, who have complained that government lawyers are often straightjacketed in deciding which cases to pursue in immigration court.
Eleanor Pelta, the lawyer association's new president, said the order may give ICE field attorneys authority to avoid going after immigrants who have no criminal records, those who have families in the country and others who "are just really not an enforcement and removal priority."
"(The field attorneys) don't have to ask anybody higher up," Pelta said. "They can just make that decision. That's how I read it."
Cheryl David, a New York attorney, said Morton's words were encouraging in the absence of a broad overhaul of immigration laws.
"I think he's saying if we're not going to have comprehensive immigration reform and we are going to continue to detain people, we can exercise prosecutorial discretion," she said.
Julie Myers, who headed ICE in the administration of President George W. Bush, said the impact hinges on the precise guidance that Morton gives in his directive.
"There are some cases that should have never been in the courts," said Myers, who is now president of ICS Consulting LLC in Washington. "The question is, 'Where's the line and where's the reasonable line?"
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.