They may be undocumented but they will have civil rights protection.
That's the message after Federal immigration officials announced that they will not deport immigrants pursuing legitimate civil rights claims, a move hailed by advocates as a way to protect a vulnerable population while critics say it encourages abuses.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a memo Friday that "absent special circumstances," it is against the agency's policy to deport immigrants in the midst of a legitimate effort to protect their civil rights. ICE officials said the memos were designed to provide guidance on exercising appropriate discretion.
The agency already allowed crime victims and witnesses to crimes to remain in the country.
"To avoid deterring individuals from reporting crimes and from pursuing actions to protect their civil rights, ICE officers, special agents and attorneys are reminded to exercise all appropriate discretion on a case-by-case basis when making detention and enforcement decisions in the cases of victims of crimes, witnesses to crime and individuals pursuing legitimate civil rights complaints," the memo states.
ICE said the policy did not stem from a single case.
Yale University professor Michael Wishnie said he and other advocates urged ICE to adopt such a policy after his client, an undocumented immigrant from Ecuador, faced deportation in December while his civil rights lawsuit was pending. The lawsuit stems from a raid in 2007 in New Haven that critics said was in retaliation for the city becoming the first to offer identification cards to immigrants.
"It's quite apparent to me the catalyst for this policy in fact was that effort in December," Wishnie said.
The policy could help hundreds and eventually thousands of immigrants, including immigrants facing wage and other issues on the job, Wishnie said. Immigrants are concentrated in low wage jobs and often face abuses, but in the past might not bother to pursue such claims, believing they would be deported before the cases were resolved, he said.
The memo was "fairly strongly worded" for ICE, said Crystal Williams, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. She said the agency already had the discretion not to deport immigrants in such cases, but few officers exercised that discretion.
"When there is a civil rights complaint, one of the best ways to get rid of it was to deport the complainer," Williams said. "I don't know that anybody set out to get rid of a case that way but it winds up being a great way to get rid of cases."
Williams said there are not a lot of cases because immigrants are reluctant to file civil rights complaints.
But Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington D.C.-based think tank that supports tighter immigration controls, said the policy would encourage more claims as a way to prevent deportations. He questioned how officials would determine what is a legitimate complaint.
"I have no doubt other immigration attorneys will take the hint and use this as a way of keeping their clients from being sent home," Krikorian said.
Krikorian said the Obama administration was not enthusiastic about enforcing immigration laws and was trying to ensure its civil rights allies that it was on their side.
But Gillian Christensen, an ICE spokeswoman, said the agency was prioritizing limited resources by focusing on criminal who are threats to public safety. More than half the immigrants deported last year were convicted criminals, a 70 percent increase in removal of criminal immigrants from the previous administration, she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.