Immigrants and their lawyers are beginning to see the effects of the White House policy announced last week that downgrades some deportation cases.
The Department of Homeland Security says it hasn't officially begun to prioritize all 300,000 cases before the nation's immigration courts, but prosecutors are definitely employing newfound discretion.
Judy Flanagan got a call this week — a call she has never gotten before in many years as an immigration lawyer. It was a prosecutor from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in Phoenix, suggesting that a college student Flanagan represents ought to ask for her deportation case to be dismissed.
"That never happens," she said. "I've asked for prosecutorial discretion in the past too for other students and that didn't work out too well. They said no."
This time she didn't even have to ask. The prosecutor apparently looked at the file and thought the student qualified under the new guidelines. The goal is to prosecute more people convicted of crimes or back in the U.S. after having already been deported, and to ease off people like 22-year-old Ileana Salinas, Flanagan's client.
One Student's Story
Salinas sits with Flanagan in Flanagan's small Phoenix law office. Flanagan asks her is she has any certificates from school.
"I have the scholarship awards," she replies.
Flanagan asks her to get a police clearance letter from the city of Phoenix that would show Salinas has no record.
Salinas came to the U.S. as a child, graduated from high school and is finishing her bachelor's degree in psychology at Arizona State University. She's wearing a maroon polo shirt with ASU Leadership Scholarship embroidered on it — an award she received. She says she'd like to go to graduate school, but since ICE arrested her and her brother after a traffic stop two years ago, Salinas says she's been in limbo.
"It's just too hard to know whether or not I will be able to complete my master's degree or if I'm going to be deported before that," she said. "Should I even apply?"
If her case is dismissed or administratively closed, it would provide some emotional relief. But her case could be reopened.
"It could be stopped at any point," Flanagan said. "It could stop with a new administration depending on who or what that is. It doesn't give clear rights to anybody."
People such as Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer call the policy "backdoor amnesty."
Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies, which wants to limit immigration, calls it administrative amnesty.
"There's nothing wrong with prioritizing," he said. "But prioritizing can't mean that you simply stop altogether enforcing immigration laws on whole categories of people millions of people."
Camerota says millions could potentially be affected if enough people picked up by ICE are deemed low priority. If the president wants immigration laws changed, Camerota says he should go to Congress.
"It is a cliché but it's true," he said. "The rule of law is the foundation on which a democratic republic such as ours is built."
If her case is dismissed, Salinas might be able to get a work permit. But she would not be eligible for permanent residency — a green card. So she says this is not amnesty, which she defines as forgiveness for wrongdoing.
"I have not done anything wrong," she said. "So it's not amnesty."
Salinas is hopeful, but self-preservation has also made her skeptical.
"It's ... like a helmet — something that I build on myself so I don't get hurt more," she said.
Her high school diploma, scholarship award letters and police clearance will go to ICE soon. Then, it's the government's move again.