By Brian Bennett and Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Obama administration officials are considering allowing bond hearings for immigrants in prolonged detention, officials said, a shift that could slow the pace of deportations because immigration courts expedite cases of incarcerated immigrants.
Several thousand immigrants could be released from jails across the country if judges are allowed to hear their cases and grant bond, advocates say.
The proposal is one of several being floated as the White House scrambles to ease the concerns of Latino groups and other traditional allies that have turned on President Barack Obama in recent weeks. Some called him “deporter in chief” and excoriated his administration for expelling immigrants who could qualify for legal papers under the immigration overhaul bill that passed the Senate last year but then stalled in the Republican-led House.
Obama has tried to keep attention focused on Republicans, rather than his record on deportations. He took the GOP to task Wednesday for failing to pass the immigration bill introduced a year ago by a bipartisan group of senators.
“Unfortunately, Republicans in the House of Representatives have repeatedly failed to take action, seemingly preferring the status quo of a broken immigration system over meaningful reform,” Obama said in a statement.
Obama also phoned House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), on Wednesday to discuss the need for immigration reform. Cantor responded with a sharp critique, saying that Obama had shown “no sincere desire to work together” with Republicans.
“You do not attack the very people you hope to engage in a serious dialogue,” Cantor said. “I told the president the same thing I told him the last time we spoke. House Republicans do not support Senate Democrats’ immigration bill and amnesty efforts, and it will not be considered in the House.”
With legislation at an apparent impasse, the White House is expected to roll out several administrative changes, such as bond hearings, to reduce deportations in coming months.
Officials are considering scrapping current instructions on whom to deport, for example, and drafting memos that set new priorities.
Immigration agents are supposed to focus first on expelling immigrants who have entered the country illegally within the last three years, for example, as well as those with criminal records, and those with repeat immigration violations.
The proposed revisions would shorten the time from three years to two weeks, and remove repeat violators from the priority list. The new directives also would instruct officers to consider whether detainees have close family ties in the United States.
Obama last month instructed Jeh Johnson, the new secretary of Homeland Security, to review immigration enforcement policies and suggest ways to make them “more humane.” Since then, Johnson has met with lawmakers and community leaders, as well as front-line immigration officers, but hasn’t said when he will make his recommendations.
Despite pressure to speed up the process, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said Johnson was proceeding at the right pace. Proposals are being reviewed at the agencies and divisions that will implement them.
“He knows where the expertise is, and it’s within the agencies, with the people who are doing these things,” McDonough said. “It’s rare in Washington to go spend time with the people who actually do the work. But that’s what he’s doing.”
Joanne Lin, a legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said bond hearings would make immigration enforcement more fair.
“If your liberty is going to be taken away, separated from your family, you need to be able to have your day in court and see an immigration judge,” Lin said.
Recent court decisions have required immigration agents to present to judges any foreigners held in detention in California and Massachusetts longer than six months. In other states, immigration agents usually decide whether someone facing deportation needs to be held in jail while the immigration court considers the case.
The ACLU, which has advocated the overhaul, said that 871 of 1,262 immigration detainees who were given bond hearings after a September 2012 federal district court ruling in California were ordered released on bond, or released with an ankle monitor, regular check-ins or other restrictions.
Justice Department lawyers have spent years fighting proposals to require bond hearings. The administration has not yet decided whether to drop its objections to the federal court’s decision or appeal to the Supreme Court.