Anselmo Bermudez braced for deportation to his native Mexico for almost three years.
Then earlier this year, immigration authorities dropped their bid to send him back. Yes, he had crossed the border without papers 17 years ago. But, his immigration attorney explained, he just isn’t the kind of immigrant the U.S. government wants to deport.
A year after the Obama administration spelled out new priorities for immigration authorities, deportations are down markedly in Minnesota and neighboring states. Nationally, they dropped more than 25 percent over the 2014 fiscal year. The government also closed thousands of cases of immigrants like Bermudez who do not fit the guidelines, allowing them to stay for now.
The new guidelines, which sharpen a focus on felons and recent border crossers, were overshadowed by the centerpiece of Obama’s executive action on immigration last November: a plan to shield parents of U.S. citizens from deportation. But while that plan remains mired in a court battle, the new deportation priorities are quietly reshaping immigration enforcement.
“These new guidelines have had a big impact,” said Susan Koberstein, a Twin Cities immigration attorney.
The shift has drawn criticism from the right and left. For some detractors, it fuels charges that Obama has pulled back from enforcing immigration laws. Still, some immigrant advocates question a new hard line on immigrants with DWI convictions and continue to call the president “deporter-in-chief.”
A shift in priorities
In 2012, an altercation with a relative brought Minneapolis police to Bermudez’s home. A judge eventually dismissed charges against him, but by then police had turned Bermudez over to immigration authorities.
Under his professional clown moniker “Barrilito,” Bermudez was a fixture at birthday parties in the local Latino community. Friends and strangers rallied to raise money for his legal bills. Immigration attorney Susana De Leon set out to build a case that Bermudez did not fit the deportation priorities.
A rewrite of a list the Obama administration issued in 2011, the new guidelines kept felons, terrorism and espionage suspects as top priorities.
But while the old guidelines could count any misdemeanor against an immigrant — presumably even Bermudez’s earlier conviction for driving without a license — the new guidelines feature a clearer shortlist. They no longer include violations such as disobeying an order to leave the country. They also more explicitly nudge authorities to factor in extenuating circumstances, such as Bermudez’s six children, four of whom were automatically granted U.S. citizenship because they were born here.
While 27 percent of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants were priorities for deportation under the old guidelines, just 13 percent are under the new ones, estimates the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
On the heels of record numbers earlier in the Obama presidency, deportations plunged this year. Based on data for 11 months of fiscal 2015, the St. Paul field office for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported 1,740 immigrants compared with more than 2,820 the year before. That represented a 50 percent drop from a high in 2010. The field office covers Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa and Nebraska.
“ICE here in Minnesota has very much focused on the new priorities,” says Linus Chan, a University of Minnesota law professor with the Twin Cities-based Detainee Rights Clinic.
The percentage of deportees with criminal convictions went up slightly, to 80 percent locally and about 60 percent nationwide. In a statement, ICE said it is focused on “smart, effective enforcement.”
Locally, ICE closed more than 1,200 deportation cases under the priority guidelines in the past two years. Immigration detentions also declined, according to the Detainee Rights Clinic.
As part of Obama’s executive action, the government scrapped Secure Communities, a program that enlisted police and sheriff’s offices to help ICE identify and detain immigrants. The program drew pushback in the courts and from local law enforcement, and the administration is rolling out a new, more limited version. Requests to hold suspects for ICE are already down. According to a recent Syracuse University analysis, ICE issued 70 requests in Minnesota in April, compared with four times as many per month on average in 2012.
Local immigration attorneys and even immigrant advocates, who still bristle at the pace of deportations, recognize the recent shift.
“The feeling is they understand, and it’s not in their interest to deport families,” said Emilia Gonzalez Avalos, of the advocacy group Navigate MN.
Fodder for critics
During his two weeks in immigration detention, Bermudez thought about returning to Mexico. He worried he wouldn’t see much of his children, most of whom are young adults.
“They are part of this place,” he said. “They weren’t going to follow me.”
But in some ways, his life took a turn for the better. The government gives immigrants it’s trying to deport work permits, which they can renew if their deportation cases are closed. With the permit, Bermudez got a more stable job at a cleaning company. He set out to make the most of what could be his last months in the United States, volunteering at his church and joining an effort to keep the Franklin Library open.
The change in focus is opposed by the national ICE agent union, which has decried pressure to release immigrants who committed crimes such as identity theft or who returned after a previous deportation.
Dan McGrath, of the advocacy group Minnesota Majority, says the country should put more resources into upholding current immigration laws rather than scaling back enforcement. Last spring, McGrath testified against a proposal to grant driver’s licenses to immigrants living in Minnesota illegally — what he sees as an offshoot of an immigrant community emboldened by a lapse in enforcement.
“The executive branch’s job is to enforce the law, and instead they tell law enforcement officers not to enforce the law,” he said. “It’s insane, and it’s unconstitutional.”
Ira Mehlman, of Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports limiting immigration, says his organization has heard from local law enforcement officials frustrated that ICE won’t detain immigrants because charges against them are not serious enough to make them a priority. The group points to a pair of high-profile homicides this year committed by immigrants released by local agencies that did not honor ICE requests to hold suspects.
Crackdown on DWIs
But immigrant advocates say ICE is towing a harder line in some cases, going after DWI offenders more aggressively now that those convictions are explicitly listed in the priority guidelines.
In March, ICE arrested 29 immigrants with criminal convictions in Minnesota as part of a national operation. Eight had felony convictions. Most of the rest had DWIs.
Last year, ICE agents detained attorney Mirella Ceja-Orozco’s client as he left for work.
“I didn’t know why they came for me,” said the native of Ecuador.
He later found out that an almost 10-year-old DWI conviction had come to haunt him. Ceja-Orozco is making a case that the father of two U.S. citizen daughters and the family’s breadwinner should be allowed to stay.
Some immigrant advocates have criticized the harder line on DWIs and a renewed focus on recent arrivals, including migrants from Central America who might have legitimate claims for asylum. Chan says some seasonal laborers recently landed in deportation proceedings after switching employers in violation of visa requirements.
“It seems really ham-fisted to treat these people as if they have a criminal conviction,” Chan said.
Bermudez says he has been busy planning since the government closed his deportation case. In his pocket, he carries a flier for business classes that reads, “Be your own boss!” He wants to start a Mexican fast-food place inspired by fellow clown Ronald McDonald.
“I have more time now,” he said. “I need to take advantage of this opportunity.”
Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781
The Obama administration’s priorities as of January 2015:
Priority 1: terrorism and espionage suspects, gang members, felons, immigrants caught trying to enter the United States illegally
Priority 2: those convicted of at least three misdemeanors or one “significant misdemeanor,” including DWI and domestic violence; recent border crossers; immigrants who have abused a visa or visa waiver program
Priority 3: those who received a final deportation order on or after Jan. 1, 2014