UPDATE: As a result of the high number of dismissals, Republican members on the Senate Judiciary Committee have taken issue written to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano demanding they be given a full report on the dismissals by November 15th.
The senators are especially “disturbed” by the fact that some of the undocumented immigrants whose cases were dismissed had criminal records. DHS requires that the immigrants have no convictions for felonies or certain misdemeanors such as sex crimes, but still allow dismissals for immigrants with lesser crime convictions.
ORIGINAL STORY: A number of Houston immigration cases were dismissed in the month following Homeland Security officials starting reviews of the Houston courts’ docket. This is more than 200 dismissed cases show a 700 percent increase from the month before.
From the 27 dismissals in Houston courts in July, the number jumped to 217 in August according to the data from the Executive Office Review for Immigration (EOIR), the administrators of the nation’s immigration court system. In September, the EOIR reported that 174 cases were dismissed. The majority of the cases involved immigrants who were already out on bond and had cases pending at Houston’s court docket, which is so crowded hearings are being scheduled into 2012.
Overall, in September, about 45 percent of the cases decided in that court resulted in dismissals.
On behalf of undocumented immigrants, federal attorneys in Houston have been filing motions since early August to dismiss cases involving suspected illegal immigrants who have lived in the country for years without committing serious crimes.
A national controversy ensued involving allegations that the Obama administration was allowing a type “backdoor amnesty” though officials deny the claim.
Though motions for dismissal seem to have slowed, immigration attorney Steve Villareal says, “They’re still doing it. They’re just doing it quietly.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials declined to discuss the specifics of the docket reviews and dismissals, but in response to the data from Houston, ICE spokeswoman Gillian Brigham noted that immigration judges can terminate cases for reasons other than prosecutorial discretion.
EOIR’s liason with the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Raed Gonzalez has said that government attorneys in Houston were instructed to exercise prosecutorial discretion on a case-by-case basis for illegal immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for at least two years and have no serious criminal history, and to qualify for dismissal, the defendants also must not have a felony record or any misdemeanor convictions (DWI, sex crimes, domestic violence, etc).
Several dismissed cases involved defendants without U.S. citizen relatives, but who had arguments for dismissal on humanitarian grounds, such as those brought to the U.S. as children who have stayed out of trouble and are enrolled in college.
Supporters believe that by moving to dismiss cases for people who have stayed out of trouble, the agency will be better able to use its limited resources to deport those with more serious criminal records.
Essentially, the dismissals mean officials will no longer actively try to remove defendants through the immigration court system, though charges may be refilled at a later date. Also, the dismissals in no way give defendants legal status. They remain undocumented immigrants and still may not legally work in the United States.
Critics like Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies however, believe the dismissals are just proof that the federal government is not enforcing the law saying, “This type of action muddles the message so both the public at large as well as illegal immigrants don’t know what to think.”