President Barack Obama's effort to clear out a logjam of nearly 300,000 immigration cases in the federal court system has its good points and its bad points, according to a local immigration attorney.
"At this point, I'm just concerned about people getting ripped off," said Glenwood Springs attorney Ted Hess. He referred to an Obama administration's directive, issued earlier this summer, to clear "low priority" deportation cases out of the court dockets.
But as the policy is being refined and explained to the immigrant community, Hess said, immigrants need to be careful to avoid scams and fraudulent offers to help make them legal. Such scams often crop up in the wake of immigration reform announcements, he said.
This risk persists, he said, even for immigrants who are eligible to benefit from efforts to ease the court backlog.
The Obama administration's latest immigration initiative, which Hess said is a work in progress, has been a directive to establish a special working group to review the backlog of deportation cases built up in recent years.
The administration's aim is to clear out cases that do not involve serious criminal charges. The cases are not canceled, Hess emphasized, but are taken off the court's docket for the time being.
"It's a good framework," agreed Brendan Greene, Rocky Mountain organizer of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. He said that there is still a lot that is not known about the effects of the directive, but was hopeful that it will be a boon to immigrants in general.
Greene also agreed with Hess that the immigrant community still needs to be wary of fraudulent efforts by cons and scammers.
But aside from that issue, Greene said, is the larger question involving the use of federal resources in appropriate ways.
According to Greene, it is appropriate for federal authorities to arrest and deport true criminals and "violent offenders."
What is not appropriate, he said, is for authorities to pick what he called "the easy, low-hanging fruit" of hard-working immigrants who are not criminals, other than the fact that they are in the country without the proper permits.
Despite administration efforts to shift the efforts of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, he said, "The focus still seems to be on people who have nonviolent records, instead of violent criminals," Greene said.
Concerning the backlog, Hess said there have been efforts to increase the number of judges overseeing immigration cases, such as doubling the number of judges at the Denver Immigration Court from three to six. The Denver court, which serves all of Colorado and Wyoming, had a reported backlog of 2,400 pending cases as of May, Hess stated.
With that kind of backlog, he said, it can take up to three years for an illegal immigrant, even someone with no record of violence or criminal charges, to get their case resolved in one way or another. That, he said, is what has forced the Obama administration to take action.
The goal of the directive, according to an Aug. 18 letter from U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security (DHS) Janet Napolitano to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is to close the file on some of the "low priority" cases involving illegal immigrants who are not known criminals or threats to national security.
"From a law enforcement and public safety perspective, DHS enforcement resources must continue to be focused on our highest priorities," Napolitano wrote, meaning cases involving those with criminal records, felony convictions, or who are believed to be a threat to national security.
Hess said guidelines issued by ICE indicate that low-priority cases would involve immigrants brought to the U.S. at a young age, or who are attending or have graduated from high school or college, have no criminal record or prior orders of deportation, and have been in the U.S. for at least a decade, among other attributes.
Hess said anyone currently involved in what they believe to be a "low priority" DHS deportation court case should call an attorney, have their case reviewed and write a letter to the DHS to request that their case be closed.
"This is still very vague," Greene said of the administration's directive to ICE and DHS, explaining that the immigration rights groups are hoping for clarifying statements from administration officials soon.
"Many, many people in the valley are on the doorstep of being deported tomorrow," he said, calling many of them "productive citizens of the area" who probably would qualify for Obama's program.