WASHINGTON – Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is weighing limiting deportations of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally who don’t have serious criminal records, according to two people with knowledge of his deliberations.
The change, if adopted following an ongoing review ordered by President Barack Obama, could shield tens of thousands of immigrants now removed each year solely because they committed repeat immigration violations, such as re-entering the country illegally after been deported, failing to comply with a deportation order or missing an immigration court date.
However, it would fall short of the sweeping changes sought by activists. They want Obama to expand a two-year-old program that grants work permits to certain immigrants brought here illegally as children to include other groups, such as the parents of any children born in the U.S.
John Sandweg, who served until February as acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said he had promoted the policy change for immigrants without serious criminal records before his departure and that it was being weighed by Johnson.
An immigration advocate who has discussed the review with the administration also confirmed the change was under consideration. The advocate spoke on condition of anonymity because the proceedings are confidential.
The approach outlined by Sandweg and the immigration advocate would change the existing priority categories that now include immigrants who have re-entered the country after they have been deported previously, and those who are fugitives from immigration proceedings. Such people would be taken off the priority list.
The remaining priority categories focus on recent border-crossers and immigrants who pose a danger to national security or public safety or who have been convicted of crimes. Some of those categories might also be refined or changed, and others could be added.
The time had come to focus ICE’s efforts exclusively on public safety and national security, Sandweg said in explaining why he pushed for the change prior to his departure from the agency. He estimated that 20,000 deported immigrants fell into the categories in question last year.
The potential changes come as Johnson proceeds with a review ordered by Obama on how to make deportation policy more humane.
With comprehensive immigration legislation stalled in the GOP-led House after passing the Senate last year, Obama has come under intense election-year pressure to stem deportations, which have neared 2 million on his watch, and allow more of the 11.5 million immigrants living illegally in the U.S. to stay.
Many activists, who have staged hunger strikes on the National Mall and outside the White House, want sweeping action by Obama to give legal certainty and work permits to millions more immigrants, like he did for those who arrived illegally as children and attended school or served in the military.