Patching a broken immigration system [Editorial]

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President Barack Obama has come under fire from Hispanic groups who say he hasn't done enough to enact comprehensive immigration reform and that his administration has deported record numbers of undocumented immigrants. Neither charge is wholly justified: Mr. Obama's pleas to House Republican leaders to take up an immigration bill passed by the Senate last year have been met with stony indifference, and though the total number of deportations on his watch has been higher than under previous presidents, they have been declining rapidly in recent years.

Faced with an intransigent GOP majority in the House, Mr. Obama found himself forced to resort to the use of his executive powers on immigration issues. This week administration officials announced they are considering allowing bond hearings for undocumented immigrants held in long-term detention awaiting deportation. Immigration advocates say several thousand such prisoners could be released under the proposed reform. This is a humane and eminently practical proposal that would do much to mitigate some of the worst injustices of the present system.


During his first term in office Mr. Obama signaled he would prioritize the deportation of undocumented immigrants whose presence in the country posed a threat to public safety. At the top of the list were people who had committed crimes here or in their countries of origin, such as drug dealers, gang members and other violent offenders. After that came people who had repeatedly violated our immigration laws by entering the country illegally and also those who had come within the last three years.

That policy aimed to discourage immigration officials from going after immigrants who entered the country illegally long ago but who are otherwise law-abiding. Such immigrants have often been living and working here for decades without incident, and deporting them often means breaking up families with children who are U.S. citizens. It was an admittedly imperfect solution to the problem of illegal immigration, but Mr. Obama apparently hoped it would add some measure of sanity to the system until Congress enacted a comprehensive immigration law overhaul.


Yet at least during the first years of the Obama administration, the president's policy wasn't followed consistently in many states and in some hardly at all — including Maryland, where the share of undocumented immigrants who were deported despite the fact they had committed no crime far exceeded the national average. An analysis by The Sun this year found that more than 40 percent of the undocumented immigrants who were deported from the state since 2009 had never been in trouble with the law.

Many of those immigrants were picked up by local law enforcement officials under the federal Secure Communities program, which allowed police to stop people suspected of being in the country illegally and detain them for questioning by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents. The ICE agents could then bring those suspects directly before a federal immigration court judge to fast-track deportation proceedings and hold them in custody until their cases were resolved. Some suspected illegal immigrants in Maryland spent more that six months in county lockups before being deported.

It's unclear exactly why the numbers of such cases in Maryland has been so out of line with those in other states. It may be partly attributed to over-enthusiastic efforts by police to target undocumented immigrants in jurisdictions that are less tolerant of their presence, but it's also the result of a conflict inherent in our current immigration laws.

To what extent the president's new proposals will change that remains to be seen. But he's certainly right to try because even people in the country illegally have a right to challenge their detention in a court where they can introduce evidence as to why they shouldn't be deported and petition for release on bail until their cases are heard. As it is now, people can be scooped up off the street, disappear into a lockup and be deported without ever having an opportunity to exercise that right. Until Congress acts to correct such injustices, the president is justified in using all the powers of his office to prevent more people from being victimized by them.

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