WASHINGTON — — Baltimore is one of two cities selected to test an immigration policy adopted by the Obama administration that could freeze deportations of illegal immigrants who have no criminal records, the Department of Homeland Security said Thursday.
The elderly, children who have been in the country more than five years, students who came to the U.S. under the age of 16 and are enrolled in a college degree program, and victims of domestic violence are among those whose deportations could be put on hold under the test program, which begins Dec. 4 and could be broadened in January.
Though the federal policy was set earlier this year, the decision to begin implementation in Baltimore is likely to renew a broader immigration debate in Maryland that has been stoked by legislation in the General Assembly to offer some illegal immigrants in-state tuition rates at public universities.
Immigration advocates in Maryland applauded the decision to roll out the new policy in Baltimore.
"We are relieved that there is potentially a new future for families that we see divided all the time" by the current deportation policy, said Kim Propeack, policy director for Casa de Maryland, an immigrant advocacy group.
A June 17 memorandum gave prosecutors more discretion over whether to pursue deportations of illegal immigrants who pose no threat to public safety. The memo offered general guidelines — some argued that it was too vague to be useful to field agents — but Immigration and Customs Enforcement has begun to roll out a training program to instruct agents on how to apply the criteria.
Administration officials say the goal is to focus enforcement on deporting people who have committed crimes. But the effort also has a political context. Obama has been criticized by Latino activists for deporting record numbers of illegal immigrants even as the president has publicly called for reforms. With Congress unwilling to approve immigration legislation, administration officials have been looking for actions they could take on their own.
Critics, including state Del. Pat McDonough, said the test program would encourage illegal immigrants to come to Maryland. The Baltimore County Republican is one of the lawmakers who organized a petition drive in opposition to the state's tuition law. That measure is set to go to voters in a referendum next year.
"I think Baltimore was picked because it is a sanctuary city," McDonough said. "This is another magnet. The more powerful that magnet is, the more people come."
McDonough said when the General Assembly convenes in January, he will push legislation that would withhold state funds from any city or county that refused to enforce immigration rules.
On Thursday, federal immigration prosecutors began implementing the policy nationwide for new deportation cases. In Baltimore and Denver — the other pilot city — attorneys will begin working their way next month through cases already on dockets. The six-week test run in Baltimore and Denver will influence the process for reviewing backlogged cases in other parts of the country.
There are more than 300,000 pending immigration cases in 59 courts across the country. The new program could halt removal proceedings for thousands of immigrants who have no criminal record, have not been previously deported, and have never lied on an official form.
Fewer than 20 percent of the cases in immigration courts involve people with criminal records beyond immigration violations, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research group based at Syracuse University.
The administration directive, sent out Thursday, stopped short of calling for low-priority cases to be terminated. Instead, ICE attorneys are instructed to request "administrative closure," a process that puts a hold on the proceedings but gives the government the right to reactivate the case.
"It is better than putting out a mother of four U.S. children and spending money on deporting people who pose no harm to the country," said David Leopold, a Cleveland attorney and past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "I'll take it."
The Obama administration deported 396,906 people from October 2010 through September of this year, and more than half had criminal convictions. The annual total was about 4,000 more deportations than the record set the previous year.
"When you go into Latino communities across the country, people see the disconnect. This is a candidate who [Latinos] voted for, for many reasons, including his promise of immigration reform, and now his deportation rates exceed that of any prior president," said Joanne Lin, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington.
Obama administration officials say there is no conflict between supporting a path to legal status for some illegal immigrants and stepping up deportations of those convicted of serious crimes. Obama has supported the federal Dream Act, which would give legal status to members of the military and students who came to the country illegally at a young age.
But that proposed legislation has repeatedly failed in Congress.
The review aims to align the deportation cases the government pursues with changes to the process put in place over the summer.
For Leonor Ferreyra-Garcia, 36, the changes could mean that she can stay with her three U.S.-born children in their home in Akron, Ohio. Ferreyra-Garcia's husband, who worked for a landscaping company and lived in the U.S. for 22 years, was deported to Mexico in July. Her case is currently in court.
"My children don't want to go back to Mexico," said Ferreyra-Garcia, who has lived in the U.S. for 18 years and is represented by Leopold, the Cleveland attorney. "They don't know the country, and I don't want them to see the murder and drugs there."
Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.
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