I think enforcement priorities are focused on really bad guys instead of people they come in contact who are out of status. —Chris Keen
SALT LAKE CITY — Numbers of requests for deportation orders as well as completed deportation cases appear to be falling nationwide, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
Immigration Customs Enforcement requests for deportation orders in fiscal 2012 were down 25 percent from the previous year's pace, according to the report. (The federal government's fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30 of the following year.)
The report indicates a like decline of completed immigration cases nationwide. If current trends hold, Utah could see a 24 percent decline in FY13, according to the TRAC report.
Utah immigration attorneys and advocates say many factors may contribute to the declines in the statistics, such as ICE targeting its resources on the enforcement and prosecution of criminal aliens and people with active orders of deportation.
The reduction in completed cases may also be due to a backlog in cases since the immigration court in Salt Lake County is down to only one judge.
According to ICE statistics, the agency removed a record of 409,849 individuals from the United States in FY2012, with 96 percent of the removals falling into its enforcement priority categories. Not all removals require judicial orders.
"Our enforcement priorities include convicted criminal aliens, immigration fugitives, recent border crossers and illegal re-entrants," said ICE spokesman Gillian Christensen.
Roger Tsai, a Salt Lake immigration attorney who primarily represents business clients, said the sharp declines in undocumented people entering the nation may also be a factor.
According to a Pew Hispanic Center report published in May 2012, the net migration flow from Mexico to the United States has stopped and may have reversed due to the weakened U.S. job and housing construction markets and heightened border enforcement, among other reasons.
"Bottom line, the jobs aren't there so there's less incentive to come," Tsai said.
Mark Alvarez, a Spanish-language radio talk show host and attorney, said some of the declines may be attributed to changes in enforcement practices. Immigration enforcers are conducting employee records audits rather than conducting workplace raids that resulted in hundreds of people being taken into custody.
"That's happening more than immigration going into a business and picking people up," Alvarez said.
The Obama administration's 2011 directive to ICE to focus on deporting dangerous criminals may have had some limited impact, said Chris Keen, chairman of the Utah chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
ICE Director John Morton's memorandum also encouraged ICE officials, when appropriate, to administratively close cases when people have no criminal records, are employed and are attending school.
"Theoretically, it's barely trickling down. I know it can take a while for a bureaucracy to adopt everything the (Washington) D.C. headquarters says to do," Keen said.
Locally, prosecutorial discretion "has had a relatively minor impact, not as large as one would expect, about 7-8 percent," according to AILA chapter statistics, Tsai said.
Enforcement of immigration law starts with contacts between ICE agents and undocumented people, with criminal aliens considered top priority.
"I think enforcement priorities are focused on really bad guys instead of people they come in contact who are out of status," Keen said.
The Obama administration has attempted, absent legislative reform of immigration laws, to address national security and immigration enforcement priorities through administrative orders and changes in practice, Alvarez said. Hopefully, recent court decisions about state-level immigration enforcement laws and limits of administrative orders will push Congress to take up immigration reform in earnest, he said.
"There's a general sense it's coming and it's coming sooner than later," Alvarez said.
"There's a sense nationally that immigration is going to become a forefront issue after Congress has dealt with the debt crisis."