Hoping for reprieve: Md. immigrants await new policy

WASHINGTON — — Oscar Alfaro holds a steady job, pays taxes, is active in his church and is raising two young daughters in Maryland. Yet he spends much of his time worrying about deportation.

The 36-year-old Honduran native lives in the United States illegally.

"You're always scared that at any moment you could be separated from your family," Alfaro, a Langley Park resident awaiting a hearing on his immigration status, said through a translator. "You live in fear."

Alfaro is among the first in the nation whose immigration case will be reviewed under a new Obama administration policy that directs federal prosecutors to focus attention on people who have committed crimes since arriving in the United States while freezing the cases of some who have not.

Baltimore is one of two cities where the policy is to be tested next month.

The elderly, children who have been in the country more than five years, and immigrants who have served in the military or have close relatives who have served are among those whose deportations could be put on hold.

Prosecutors nationwide began applying the policy to new cases this week. Beginning Dec. 4, government attorneys in Baltimore and Denver also will use it to review cases already on the docket. Their experience in the six-week test will influence the process when such reviews expand to the rest of the country next year.

Advocates say the change could have a positive impact on the lives of many immigrants in Maryland. Opponents say the new approach amounts to amnesty and would increase the flow of illegal immigrants across the border.

The broad policy was established in a June 17 memorandum that directed prosecutors to focus on immigrants who have committed crimes or pose a security threat. The Department of Homeland Security chose Baltimore for the test in part because of the volume and mix of immigration cases that come through the federal court.

Nearly 1,800 immigrants were deported from Maryland in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, up from 859 the year before, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Supporters of the new policy applauded the decision to begin implementation in Maryland.

"We are spending far too much time, money and effort attempting to apprehend people who are living otherwise lawful lives here in our nation, while those who break our laws continue to do harm," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat.

Baltimore's pilot program, he said, could lead to a more effective model for the country.

Alfaro's attorney, who works for Casa de Maryland, an advocacy group, believes his client is a good candidate to have his case deferred.

Alfaro came to the United States in 1999 — he declined to say how — and has worked at the same construction company for eight years. He said he frequently volunteers in his community and has committed no crime since arriving. He got caught up in immigration court after applying for permanent residency. He says his employer supported the move.

"I'm dedicated to my work. I'm dedicated to my family. I'm dedicated to my church," Alfaro said. "I am no threat to the community."

But the new policy has drawn criticism. Opponents note that illegal immigrants have committed a crime by entering the country improperly in the first place.

"Even more worrisome is President Obama's picking and choosing from among the acts of Congress the administration and Attorney General Eric Holder will enforce," said Rep. Andy Harris, a Baltimore County Republican who represents the Eastern Shore and some Baltimore suburbs. "If the president doesn't like the current law, he should have come back early from his vacation in the tropics and worked with Congress to change it, not doing yet another unconstitutional end run around our immigration law."

Obama is attending the East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia.

Del. Pat McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican, held a news conference Friday to say he might sue to stop implementation of the administration's new rule.

"Maryland has become the Disneyland of the East Coast for illegal aliens," McDonough said. "People go where they are wanted or welcome or accepted. When you give people benefits, they are going to come."

McDonough said he is concerned that an influx of immigrants could worsen Baltimore's crime problem.

"When you attract more people to Baltimore City, wolves come in with the sheep," he said.

McDonough helped lead opposition this year to a state law that would allow certain illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at Maryland colleges. After opponents of the measure mounted a successful petition drive, voters will have the final say on the issue in a referendum next year.

The state's Republicans are not universally opposed to the new administration policy.

"It makes sense to allocate our taxpayers' limited resources to prioritize getting dangerous people out of our communities and out of our country as fast as possible," said Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican who faces a competitive election next year.

Obama administration officials note that prosecutors have always had a degree of discretion over how to prioritize their cases. And they say it makes sense to target dangerous individuals first.

Baltimore and Denver were chosen in part for their size: Caseloads are significant, but not unmanageable. Baltimore also sees a wide spectrum of immigration cases.

Baltimore saw 4,330 immigration court proceedings last year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, and completed 3,613.

With more than 300,000 immigration cases pending nationwide, the new program could halt removal proceedings for thousands of immigrants. Fewer than 20 percent of the cases involve defendants with criminal records other than their immigration violations, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research group based at Syracuse University.

Despite broad consensus that the U.S. immigration system is broken, Congress has been unable to agree on changes. A once-bipartisan proposal to bestow legal status on some immigrants who arrived in the United States as minors and who attend college or serve in the military for two years died in the Senate last year. Many Republicans viewed the effort as a political ploy by Democrats, including Obama, to court Hispanic voters.

Rep. Donna F. Edwards, a Prince George's County Democrat, said the administration's policy and the decision to test it in Maryland make more sense than leaving the states to create a morass of conflicting laws.

"Changes to our immigration system cannot be done in a patchwork approach with 20, 30 or 50 state laws," she said. "Our immigration policy and finite resources must focus on those posing an actual threat to our communities."

Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.