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Brian Nicholson, Deseret News
Tony Yapias talks with some families as they react during a press conference at Centro Civico Mexicano, to the decision by Obama to halt certain deportations, Friday, Aug. 19, 2011.

SALT LAKE CITY — From his new home in Chile, Claudio Correa thinks about what might have been.

What if the Obama administration had allowed illegal immigrants facing deportation a chance to stay in the country 10 months earlier? Would his case be among the 300,000 the government intends to review as part of the new policy?

Would he and his wife, Deborah, still be making stained glass windows for LDS temples and other buildings from a studio in Lehi? Would their teenage son and daughter be heading back to American Fork High School next week?

But he also thinks about what could be for those, like him, who aren't criminals, who hold jobs, pay taxes and contribute to society but face deportation.

"I feel happy because I have friends and I know many people living there that could take advantage of this," Correa said. "But at the same time (this) is sad for me because we lost everything."

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested Correa last October on an outstanding deportation order, though he had not received so much as a traffic ticket during 10 years in the United States. His family returned to their native Argentina last November before settling in Concepcion, Chile.

Correa's thoughts come on the heels of the Obama administration announcing Thursday it will give many illegal immigrants an opportunity to stay in the country and apply for a work permit. At the same time, immigration authorities will focus on removing convicted criminals and those who pose a national security or public safety threat.

The policy change drew sharp criticism from some Utah politicians and anti-illegal immigration groups, while being received with cautious optimism in the Latino community.

Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, called it a "slap in the face" to people trying to enter the United States legally. It's hypocritical, he said, to say people in the country illegally haven't committed any other crimes.

Ron Mortensen, co-founder of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, said people who have been arrested and allowed to stay only because they don't have an existing criminal record amounts, in most cases, to amnesty from document, Social Security and identity fraud.  

"It appears that the Obama administration has sacrificed millions of Americans who are the victims of illegal alien identity theft for purely political purposes," he said. "This is politics at its worst."

Latino community leaders held a news conference Friday to discuss how the policy changes might affect undocumented immigrants in Utah. They said they hope it will end the unnecessary separation of families whose members may be legal and illegal.

Attorney and community activist Mark Alvarez said if a person is not currently in federal immigration court proceedings, the policy has no impact on them.

The government intends to review about 300,000 illegal immigrants slated for deportation on a case-by-case basis. That amounts to less than 3 percent of the nation's undocumented population.

The Salt Lake City immigration court established in 2005 had issued more than 8,200 deportation orders through last year.

"The law has not changed," said Archie Archuleta, chairman of the Utah Coalition of La Raza. "All they have done is said certain people are not to be threatened."

Because of that, Latino community leaders cautioned undocumented workers to beware of unscrupulous attorneys who might use the policy to take people's money with an empty promise of residency or citizenship.

Alvarez said it's not clear how Homeland Security will apply Obama's policy change. But a June memo from ICE director John Morton might provide some indication, he said.

Morton gave ICE field offices guidance on using "prosecutorial discretion" when enforcing immigration law. He advised agents to consider length of time in the United States, manner of arrival such as coming as a young child, educational pursuits and military service.

Homeland Security estimates that 61 percent of the roughly 11.8 million of the nation's illegal immigrants have been here longer than 10 years. Only 9 percent have entered the country in the past five years.

The Correa family would be among those longtime immigrants. So would two other men, both local LDS Church leaders, who made headlines when they were deported to Guatemala and El Salvador earlier this year, along with possibly many others.

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The Correas came to the United States legally in 2000 with the understanding that Correa's employer would help pave the way for residency. That didn't happen. Later petitions for  asylum due to religious persecution in their native Argentina were denied. Misguided advice from attorneys kept them in country thinking immigration officials would reopen their case someday.

Correa said he finds U.S. immigration law confusing. He doesn't know if it will ever be possible for him and his family to come back. And the policy change just perplexes him more.

He said he doesn't understand how he was a criminal last year, but wouldn't be one this year.

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