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In our opinion: Editorial: Using discretion

Published: Saturday, Aug. 20 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Law enforcement, by nature, requires discretion.

For example, a police officer may choose to ticket one speeder over another based on how recklessly each appears to be driving, how much lip he gets from a driver or even a gut feeling. Discretion is also built into the U.S. legal system. Prosecutors exercise tremendous discretion in deciding which cases to prosecute and what sentences to pursue.

At present, officials enforcing immigration laws use, of necessity, an enormous amount of discretion. So it is heartening to see new directives on deportation of illegal immigrants that offer officials some common-sense guidelines for using that discretion as they handle one of the most overwhelming challenges facing our country.

The new guidelines, outlined in a letter from Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, call for targeting convicted criminals and others for deportation who may pose a threat to national security or public safety, while allowing other illegal immigrants to stay in the country temporarily and apply for work permits.

From the letter: "From a law enforcement and public safety perspective, DHS enforcement resources must continue to be focused on our highest priorities. Doing otherwise hinders our public safety mission – clogging immigration court dockets and diverting DHS enforcement resources away from the individuals who pose a threat to public safety."

Priorities like this are essential because it is simply impractical, if not impossible, to deport all undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Current estimates put the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. at more than 11 million. During the first fiscal year of Obama's presidency, 387,790 immigrants were deported (almost 100,000 more than during the last year of the Bush administration).

That's roughly 3.5 percent of all illegal immigrants. Even if the federal government were to significantly ramp up deportations, there would never be resources sufficient to make much of a dent in that 11 million figure. Certainly the government should not pick and choose which laws to enforce — but in this case, there is no way around picking instances in which to enforce it. It's already happening.

Given these limitations, the choice for public safety should be obvious. Many undocumented immigrants pay taxes, volunteer in their communities and raise children to believe in hard work. Other undocumented immigrants join gangs, commit violent crimes and threaten public safety. Clearly, if resources are limited, they should go toward punishing and deporting those who commit violent felonies. Encouragingly, there is evidence that even as the number of deportations is rising, criminal deportations now make up a significantly larger share of deportations overall.

In another stroke of common sense, the Napolitano letter says children brought to the U.S. by undocumented immigrants should be among the least likely to face deportation. Children are not a threat to American security, and having been educated in American public schools, they are in the best position to contribute to the economy and their communities. If deported, many would be utterly helpless in a country they don't remember with a language they don't speak. And keeping families together should be an important cornerstone of any immigration policy.

To be clear, the Deseret News strongly believes in upholding the laws of the land — including immigration laws. As a corollary, however, we also advocate writing good laws that are enforceable and that reflect principles of liberty and justice. People on both sides of the aisle at least agree that America's current policies could use some improvement.

The country still has a long way to go on immigration reform. Emotions run high, and strong opinions on both sides have repeatedly led to political deadlock. But these new guidelines offer some encouragement that level heads with practical solutions are working to make the current system more efficient and keep Americans safer. We hope this sort of moderate, good judgment continues to influence the conversation and help the country devise a set of policies that protect America's security and other interests in a compassionate way.

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