Preliminary numbers show that about 15 percent of the 7,923 immigrants whose cases were reviewed as part of a Department of Homeland Security pilot project in Denver will be allowed to stay in the country, says Laura Lichter, the president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Those include local student Gerardo Noriega, but not Sujey Pando, who is still waiting, along with her wife, to hear the outcome of her case.
"We are still sitting on the edge of our seats," says Violeta Pando. She and Sujey married in Iowa in 2010, but their union is not federally recognized.
On a conference call today, Lichter and others, including Julie Gonzales, the political director of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, said they're encouraged by the government's efforts to review a total of about 13,000 immigration cases in Denver and Baltimore with the goal of closing those deemed low-priority. The feds have said that the pilot project, which took place over six weeks and ended on January 13, was a test run for a more comprehensive review of all 300,000 pending deportation cases nationwide.
But the lawyers and advocates also said they're frustrated by what they see as the shortcomings of the plan. For instance, the immigrants whose cases are closed won't be offered legal status or permission to work. "Nobody is walking out of this with a green card or anything of the sort," says Lichter, a Denver attorney. Instead, she says, their status is simply put on hold. "Their case is basically frozen," she explains.
That's the position 21-year-old Noriega, featured in a New York Times story on the subject, finds himself in. Though his deportation has been stopped, he's not sure whether he'll be able to go to college to study automotive engineering, which is his dream.
"I kind of feel frustrated but at the same time, hopeful that if they granted me administrative closure, maybe they'll grant me a temporary work permit," Noriega told Westword in December, when he heard that his case had been closed as part of the review. "They pretty much just told me to wait until they tell me something else."
Not all immigrants whose cases were reviewed in the pilot by Immigration and Customs Enforcement attorneys in Denver have been notified of the attorneys' decisions, Lichter says. After a decision is made, the immigrant must also pass a background check, which takes time. Lichter says she hopes the process will be finished within thirty days.
She and others also hope ICE attorneys continue to practice prosecutorial discretion in cases such as those of young immigrants hoping to go to college and those of immigrants who are married to U.S. citizens and have citizen children. This past June, ICE director John Morton wrote a memo instructing attorneys to do just that. Then, in August, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that the feds would conduct a case-by-case review of 300,000 deportation cases. The ultimate goal, she said, would be to focus on deporting serious criminals -- not law-abiding members of society.
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Gonzales says the government needs to do more to educate the immigrant community about prosecutorial discretion. "Because the Department of Homeland Security was so obtuse about how the program was going to work, that left people with tons of questions," she says. Immigrants need to know what type of documentation they should provide for their case review, she says, such as high school transcripts, proof of family members' citizenship and letters describing how they've contributed to American society.
"The immigrant community is looking for solutions," Gonzales says. " We want to make sure this tool (of prosecutorial discretion) is utilized to its full impact, but we all agree that at the end of the day, what we need is comprehensive immigration reform."
More from our Immigration archive: "Colorado Democrats commend Obama's 'smarter immigration policy.'"