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Understanding Changes To U.S. Deportation Policy

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests over 2,400 convicted criminal aliens, fugitives in enforcement operation throughout all 50 states.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests over 2,400 convicted criminal aliens, fugitives in enforcement operation throughout all 50 states.
Understanding Changes To U.S. Deportation Policy
Only those illegal immigrants with criminal records, or deemed security threats, will be deported now under a new Obama Administration policy. We examine what this means for millions in the U.S. illegally.

Without fanfare last week, the Obama administration announced a major change in U.S. deportation policy. Instead of prosecuting tens of thousands of people now being detained because they have no papers, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will deport only who are convicted criminals or who pose a public safety threat. The announcement comes as a reversal to aggressive deportations during the first years of President's Obama's term.


Pedro Rios is director of the American Friends Service Committee in San Diego.


Lilia Velasquez is an attorney specializing in immigration and nationality law.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Without fanfare this week, the Obama administration announced a major change in U.S. deportation policy. Instead of prosecuting tens of thousands of people now being detained because they have no papers, the government says it will deport only those who are convicted criminals or who pose a public safety threat. The announcement comes as a reversal to the aggressive deportations conducted during the first years of President Obama's term. Joining me to talk about the new policy are my guests, Pedro Rios, director of the American friends service committee. Hello.

RIOS: Hi. Nice to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And let me start with you, Pedro. Did this change in policy come as a surprise to you?

RIOS: Well, you know, it certainly came as a surprise in terms of how we were seeing deportations and aggressive enforcement measures being taken by the Obama administration. However, with a lot of caution is how I see this recent announcement because ICE agents and agents in the past have always had prosecutorial discretion. I think this new law may clarify some things for individuals, but it certainly isn't a charge change in how the Obama industrialization is moving forward in these cases. There will be some changes for same sex couples as we have seen in recent news, but not for a large majority of people at this moment.


CAVANAUGH: And I want to welcome our second guest on the line, Lilia Velasquez, an attorney specializing in immigration and international law. Welcome to the show.

VELASQUEZ: Good to be here.

CAVANAUGH: I was just speaking with Pedro as to whether he was surprised in this change on deportation policy. What is your tame on this? Will people be freed from deportation detention here in San Diego?

VELASQUEZ: Not by any extent imaginable. What we have here is a policy that had been articulated in the past. It's called the Norton memo whereby they gave a directive to immigration officers via the border patrol or ICE agents to use their discretion when they encounter someone on the street or somebody they detain for some other reason, and they ascertain that the individual has no documents. To look into the personal situation first before placing that individual in removal proceedings. So with this new policy that was announced last Thursday, I see it as an extension of a policy that already existed except that now, it seems to have more force. But the idea that the agency is going to paralyze itself and everything will be frozen and no people will be arrested, and no people will be deported, clearly that is not going to happen.

CAVANAUGH: Since these new guidelines came out, Lilia, how will anyone argue that they are going to keep noncriminal people here without papers? Wouldn't they have to be released from detention?

VELASQUEZ: Not necessarily because that's not really what the policy is. The policy primarily deals with a huge backlog of cases that we have before the immigration judges. 300,000 cases. Clearly the Courts are busting at the seams. They don't know what to do. It takes a long time to get a trial because we don't have enough judges. And so we just don't have enough resources. And it makes perfect sense from the point of view of saving a judicial economy to say, wait a second, what are the cases that really should go forward where we really want to deport this individual? Or what are the cases that maybe we want to keep on hold? Low priority cases. The dreamers would be the perfect example. Students, they came here when they were babies, we invested in their education, no arrests, nothing. Why deport them? They are not a priority.

CAVANAUGH: Right. And the dreamers that you're talking about are people who would be affected by the dream act, which has been stalled in the Senate but would allow younger people who came here as children, don't have papers, to remain here under certain circumstances. Now, I just want to be clear about this because everything that I've read about this new policy, Lilia, has basically said that people who are being detained by the U.S. government now for possible deportation, their records will be checked and if indeed they don't have criminal records, they will not be prosecuted for deportation and they will be allowed to apply for a work permit. Is this not the case?

VELASQUEZ: The idea that somebody can qualify for a work permit being an undocumented status really came as a shock to me because in order to qualify for a work permit, you need to have a basis for that work permit. You need to qualify under a section of law. In fact, the form that is it completed, form I765, specifically requires the person to include the section of law that authorizes him or her to obtain a work permit. If a person is an undocumented status or is in limbo because the government is not going to prosecute the case and deport them, they still have no status. And legally speaking, they have no right to that work permit. So where that came from is a complete surprise to many of us.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Pedro, when you talked about this in the beginning of the show, and you talked about that in a sense, it was a surprise because there had been aggressive deportations in the early years of the Obama administration. What has been the Obama administration's track record on deportations?

RIOS: For a lack of a way of phrasing it, immigration reform under President Obama has been increased enforcement measures. We've seen, for instance, the application of certain operations such as secured communities is that has been implemented throughout the State of California. It was initially implemented in San Diego back in May of twine. And this has been the trajectory of the Obama administration without any movement from Congress, unfortunately. Which means that there really hasn't been a commitment toward making a good faith effort to stop deportations of families, of communities, of those who would most likely benefit from this sort of prosecutorial discretion. And unfortunately that has been will how immigration reform has been tainted under the Obama administration. It's interesting because while this memorandum comes out during the time of President Obama's announcement of his reelection campaign, it's really suspect, the timing is really suspect. We have to take it with a lot of caution in terms of how many people really will be benefited from this sort of flexibility that agents will have that they have always had as I mentioned before and Lilia mentioned as well. And it's interesting to see the track record that -- of who will be benefiting from these changes in the next few months.

CAVANAUGH: Along with the murky aspects of this that you've already talked about, Lilia, is who actually has a criminal record in the eyes of these -- the prosecutors who are deciding whether or not to continue with deportation proceedings. What constitutes a criminal record?

VELASQUEZ: Well, certainly a record where the person was convicted. Of course you can have a record of a DUI, which is quite common and doesn't disqualify an individual from getting citizenship or applying for a grebe green card. You also have aggravated felonies, a person who committed theft or injured someone. So those are serious crimes. But I think that more than criminal convictions, what they're also looking at is immigration violations. A prior deportation is -- has very serious repercussions for an individual that wants to legalize his or her status. That is very important. I think they're looking at immigration violators, and also criminal convicts that have a record that is very serious. Those cases have always had priority. In that rad regard, the now policy has not shifted that responsibility. They are at the top of the list. The dreamers will be -- should be at the bottom of the list. But if I may address one point raised during your question to Pedro.


VELASQUEZ: Why is it that we have so many deportations under the Obama administration? My understanding is that the Congress indicated some time back until we get the country under control, until DHS really cleans house and does its job in gets rid of all the deportable people, then we can talk about an immigration reform. That's my understanding of what has happened, so therefore they keep saying look at the numbers, look at the figures, we're doing fantastic. Therefore, now let's talk about immigration reform. Whether or not that is true, I'm not certain. But at least it's one explanation that I've heard as to why we have this increased enforcement during the last few years.

CAVANAUGH: Lilia, you must have gotten an awful lot of phone calls after news of this was released. What are you telling people on the phone who perhaps are in the beginning stages of the deportation proceedings, or perhaps who got all excited about the idea of being able to apply for a work permit? What kind of advice are you giving clients and friends of clients and people who are calling you?

VELASQUEZ: Well, it's been hundreds of people calling my office. But what I tell them is the following: The only thing that we know is that there's a new policy that they are going to review 300,000 cases pending before the immigration court. That's all we've heard. So if a person has a spending case, then maybe there's hope we can close that case administratively, maybe we can expect that we can terminate proceedings in that situation. The cases that I have right now that are before the Courts, I am going to request either they be closed administratively or terminated. The people who are not in removal proceedings, I tell them they're very lucky. The officer may say, you have a father who has a green card, you have children, we're going to let you go. But in terms of getting a document that says that they're legal, a work permit that will allow them to join the laborer force, no. There is no such thing. There's no basis under the law for them to get a work permit. I tell them take a deep breath, sit tight, let's wait for this case or policy to develop because that's what they're trying to do right now, set a criteria, which cases will go for review, go forward, which cases we can get rid of. So we're still in the planning stages. Let's sate and see what happens.

CAVANAUGH: I know there's a lot more to talk about concerning this issue. Bull we are out of time. I'd like to thank the people I've been speaking with, immigration attorney Lilia Velasquez, and Pedro Rios with the American friends service committee. Thank you both so much.

VELASQUEZ: Thank you.

RIOS: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

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