As Deportations Soar to Historic Levels Nationwide, Federal Immigration Officials Are Quietly Halting Deportations of Students

Amid a tightening circle of immigration enforcement by the federal government, officials are quietly halting deportations of some student activists organizing in favor of the federal DREAM Act. 

In a rare glimpse of internal immigration policy priorities, the Obama Administration and Department of Homeland Security officials acknowledged over the weekend they have avoided pursuing deportation orders against many undocumented students across the nation who have not committed crimes – an immigration term called 'deferred action'.  The acknowledgment comes as the number of deportations continues to reach unprecedented levels under the Obama Administration – nearly 390,000 immigrants were deported in 2009, roughly 20,000 more than in the final year of the Bush administration.  

Many undocumented youth have been at the forefront of increasingly public actions calling for comprehensive immigration reform as well as the federal DREAM Act, a bill that would grant eventual legal status to undocumented high school graduates who meet a series of requirements, including being longtime US residents, entering the country before the age of 16, and enrolling in community college, a university, or the armed forces. 

Deportation Data Released:   These statistics come in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, where the Department of Homeland Security released data this week on the roughly 47,000 immigrants deported over the past 18 months through a controversial federal immigration enforcement program, Secure Communities. Similar to 287(g) agreements and Arizona's now temporarily suspended SB 1070, the program seeks to empower state and local law enforcement authorities to enforce federal immigration laws - an approach that PSN has detailed as ineffective, expensive, and one that erodes community trust in the police.  

More specifically, Secure Communities seeks to establish agreements with state and local law enforcement authorities and departments to cross-reference all who are booked on suspicion of committing a crime through immigration databases in a search for undocumented residents.  If it becomes clear through such a search that an individual apprehended by the police lacks valid immigration status, they are then transferred to federal immigration officials and often swiftly deported. Immigrant rights advocates have raised numerous concerns about due process violations of immigrants apprehended through the program.  The effort, increasingly a focus of the Department of Homeland Security's immigration enforcement priorities, has been touted by officials as a targeted effort to focus on undocumented immigrants who commit violent crimes and single them out for deportation.  Secure Communities is also rapidly expanding: the program now operates in 494 jurisdictions in 27 states - a major expansion compared to only 14 jurisdictions just 18 months ago.  Federal immigration officials plan on extending the program to every law enforcement jurisdiction nationwide by 2013. 

Yet the data revealed via the FOIA request shows the program is in reality a broad immigration dragnet, and one that overwhelmingly sweeps up undocumented immigrants who have committed no crime at all:  79%  of those already deported through the program committed no crime or committed only minor offenses such as unpaid tickets or driving with a broken taillight.  28% of those deported through the program had no criminal record at all and were not convicted of any crime, yet were still deported.  In addition, jurisdictions that have entered into Secure Communities agreements find it difficult to rescind their participation: San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey noted he is attempting to withdraw his jurisdiction from their agreement, and has not yet been able to do so. 

Federal DREAM Act Gaining Support:  In the midst of this troubling data on deportations, it appears immigration officials are increasingly recognizing that students seeking college education should not be targets.   As federal immigration reform (including the bipartisan DREAM Act) has lagged, DREAM Act lead sponsor Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL and the second-highest ranking Senate Democrat) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) called for a moratorium on deporting students.  The Obama Administration and the Department of Homeland Security declined to impose such a moratorium even as they continued to call for passage of the DREAM Act.  In the meantime, it appears the Department of Homeland Security is granting 'stays' of students' deportations on a case-by-case basis – yet are generally avoiding deporting student activists.