The federal government will review the current deportation caseload to keep low-priority cases from resulting in removal, the White House announced on Thursday.
Democratic congressional leaders who praised the move said it would ease the way for individuals who came to the United States illegally as children and have already spent years in the country to stay and work legally.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano detailed the changes, on behalf of President Barack Obama, in a letter to Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, a long-time sponsor of immigration reform.
"Together with the Department of Justice (DOJ), we have initiated an interagency working group to execute a case-by-case review of all individuals currently in removal proceedings to ensure that they constitute our highest priorities," wrote Napolitano.
New cases placed in removal proceedings will get similar treatment, she said.
A joint Homeland Security/DOJ working group will develop specific criteria and a process for identifying low-priority removal cases that call for prosecutorial discretion.
Homeland Security will begin reviewing all 300,000 backlogged deportation cases, according to Durbin's office.
Attorneys for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will individually review every case scheduled for a hearing in the next few months.
Identified cases will be closed "except in extraordinary circumstances," which will require approval to proceed.
Individuals whose cases are closed will be eligible to apply for immigration benefits such as work authorization.
Durbin and others had written the President several letters this year on the Administration's enforcement policies.
Durbin, chief sponsor of the recently introduced 2011 Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, praised the Administration's move Thursday in a statement which said if fully implemented, "the new process should stop virtually all DREAM Act deportations."
PAVING THE PATH
The DREAM Act would pave a path to legal status and eventual citizenship for illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children, lived in the country for at least five years, and completed two years of college or military service, among other requirements.
"The Obama Administration has made the right decision in changing the way they handle deportations of DREAM Act students," Durbin said.
"These students are the future doctors, lawyers, teachers and, maybe, Senators, who will make America stronger."
The new process announced Thursday will consider such "positive factors" as student status as criteria for identifying low priority cases.
But Napolitano's letter also said: "It will not provide categorical relief for any group. Thus, this process will not alleviate the need for passage of the DREAM Act or for larger reforms to our immigration laws."
Republicans have said that if passed the DREAM Act would effectively constitute amnesty and encourage illegal immigration, and criticized the idea that the administration should implement similar policies on its own.
"Every amnesty encourages more illegal immigration, costs taxpayers who pay for government benefits, and displaces American workers," Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican and Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said of the DREAM Act.
This week Obama reiterated his support for comprehensive immigration reform but pledged stricter enforcement of high-priority removal cases involving illegal immigrants with criminal records.
In fiscal year 2010, a record year for total removals, ICE deported 79,000 more aliens who had been convicted of a crime than it did in FY2008, when Obama took office.
Under Obama, over 1.4 million people in all have been removed from the country for immigration violations.