Advocates for immigrant rights say they are looking forward to a pilot project in Colorado where immigration officials will review deportation cases to identify high-profile cases from those where the immigrant does not pose a security threat.
The advocates said on Thursday that they are hopeful about the Obama administration's plan to review all of the pending 7,800 deportation cases in Colorado -- as well as 5,000 cases in Baltimore -- as part of an experiment to make enforcement agencies focus on high-priority cases.
About 300,000 cases pending nationwide could be affected if the experiment succeeds.
President-elect Laura Lichter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association said Thursday that cases now pending in Colorado will be put on hold while they are reviewed to ensure that only the worst offenders are being deported. She said prosecutors across the country have discretion on those cases, but current enforcement programs are not working.
Lichter said the current program, known as Secure Communities, has been embraced by some states including Colorado and resulted in the deportation of people accused of traffic violations or other misdemeanors. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is reviewing the state's participation in the program over questions of racial profiling and ensuring the rules are being followed.
Several states have said they don't want to participate, arguing that immigration is a federal, not state, responsibility.
"Over 60 percent of those being deported have no criminal records or misdemeanors," Lichter said.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security disputes those figures, saying some analysts are focusing only on the technical reasons why an individual is deported and do not include the criminal history that triggered the decision to seek a removal order.
Immigration rights groups say that's proof stricter reviews are needed.
Even if undocumented immigrants are allowed to stay, there is no guarantee they can get a job. Raul Carrdenas, an undocumented immigrant who had his case put on hold last week under the current system, said he was crushed to learn that he can't go back to work.
"I still can't support my family. I feel useless," he said.
The six-week pilot project in Denver is part of a policy change announced in June by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. She had said the administration was putting those who pose a public safety or national security threat at the top of the queue.
Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said President Barack Obama is trying to bypass Congress by stopping enforcement of immigration laws in Colorado.
"The executive branch is just rewriting immigration law. They're making sure these cases never get to court," Mehlman said.
Republicans said making it a priority to deport those immigrants amounts to a back-door way of granting amnesty to other people who are living in the U.S. illegally but haven't committed crimes.
Congressional Republicans have said the government must first secure the border before discussions can turn to an overhaul.
This is based on a story by The Associated Press.