Immigration policy change to affect thousands waiting for green card

n a new and more lenient policy, the head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has instructed the agency’s legal office to stop the deportation proceedings of foreign nationals who may now be eligible for a green card.

South Florida immigration attorneys and activists said the move is the first solid evidence of more tolerance by ICE toward some foreign nationals facing removal to their homelands.

Affected are possibly tens of thousands who are married or related to a U.S. citizen or a legal resident who has filed a petition for them. The immigrants who will benefit must also not have any criminal convictions.

In unveiling the change, ICE assistant secretary John Morton said the agency will soon drop deportation proceedings against those who are now eligible under the new guidelines.

“Where there is an underlying application or petition and ICE determines … that a non-detained individual appears eligible for relief from removal, [its attorneys] should promptly move to dismiss proceedings,” Morton wrote in a Aug. 20 memo to the agency’s principal legal adviser and the head of enforcement and removal operations.

“Good for John Morton and ICE,” said Cheryl Little, executive director of Miami-based Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC), who obtained the memo and gave a copy to El Nuevo Herald.

“This is the kind of reform we need. Targeting those who intend to do harm while expediting the cases of law-abiding immigrants is the best use of ICE’s precious resources and will save taxpayers money,” she said.

Richard Rocha, ICE deputy press secretary in Washington, reiterated his agency’s policy of focusing first on removing foreign nationals who have criminal convictions.

“This administration is committed to smart, effective immigration reform, prioritizing the arrest and removal of criminal aliens and those who pose a danger to national security,” said Rocha in a statement. “In 2010 to date, ICE has removed more than 150,000 convicted criminals — a record number. ICE is not engaged in a ‘backdoor’ amnesty and has placed more people in immigration proceedings this year than ever before.”

Little’s office said one of its clients, identified only as Josianne, may benefit from the Morton memo.

Josianne and her youngest daughter, both Haitian, are now in deportation proceedings despite petitions filed by Josianne’s U.S. citizen husband. The proceedings have been postponed because of delays in processing the petitions.

The Morton memo will allow FIAC to ask the immigration judge to dismiss the case.

Before the memo, foreign nationals in deportation proceedings likely would have been deported even if they had pending relative petitions.

How many people the new ICE policy may benefit is difficult to gauge.

Morton’s memo said that in July 2009, the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the immigration court system, identified about 17,000 deportation cases delayed because the foreign nationals had pending petitions.

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