The Obama administration announced Thursday it plans to focus its deportation efforts on more dangerous undocumented immigrants, a move that gives undocumented Charlotte students like Elver Barrios hope.
As part of the policy change, the Department of Homeland Security intends to review the cases of approximately 300,000 undocumented immigrants facing deportation orders.
Those without criminal records who are found to be a low priority because they are students, were brought here as children, or have long family ties to the country could be released and granted a work permit.
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If Barrios were ever to be arrested, he believes this policy change could allow him to stay in the country he's lived in since he was 14.
“This could be my chance to stay here,” said Barrios, 20, who graduated from West Mecklenburg High School and is originally from Guatemala. “Every day I go out, even when I go buy the groceries, I risk getting arrested.”
The policy change comes at a time when President Barack Obama has come under fire from some of his greatest allies.
Latino advocates have grown increasingly frustrated with the president. Obama has promised to reform the nation's immigration laws, yet advocates say his administration has continued to allow thousands to be deported annually after being arrested for minor offenses.
The Department of Homeland Security must focus its resources on removing those who have been convicted of major crimes and are threats to national security or public safety, said Secretary Janet Napolitano.
“Doing otherwise hinders our public safety mission – clogging immigration court dockets and diverting DHS enforcement resources away from the individuals who pose a threat to public safety,” she wrote in a letter to a group of senators supporting new immigration legislation.
Critics charged the Obama administration with implementing a back-door amnesty policy.
Under the guise of setting priorities for immigration enforcement, the White House is overhauling the nation's immigration policy without congressional approval, said Dan Stein, president of FAIR, which advocates for greater immigration enforcement.
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said having a backlog and prioritizing deportations is nothing new.
“This policy goes a step further granting illegal immigrants a fast track to gaining a work permit where they will now unfairly compete with more than nine percent of Americans who are still looking for jobs,” he said in a statement.
In June, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced it was encouraging agents to use “prosecutorial discretion” for undocumented immigrants who are seeking college degrees.
The authorities are now instructed to give “particular care and consideration” to individuals “present in the United States since childhood” and whether that person has a criminal record.
Erick Velazquillo, a 22-year-old Central Piedmont Community College student, was brought to the country illegally when he was 2 years old. He was placed into deportation proceedings last fall after he was arrested for driving without a valid driver's license.
Last month, just weeks before he was expecting to be deported, immigration officials dropped their deportation case.
But they didn't alter his status. With this policy change, Velazquillo is hopeful he can rest a little easier – and be able to get a work permit.
“It gives me a status that I've never had before,” he said. “It will give me a work permit. It will help me to contribute more to the country than just being here. It would make things so much easier.”
Lacey Williams, the youth civic engagement organizer at the Latin American Coalition, questioned how the policy will be implemented.
“At first blush it's great news, it certainly has great potential,” she said. “What we're anxiously awaiting is how this announcement will trickle down. How will it affect people in deportation proceedings now? What will happen to them tomorrow, next week?”
Others said the administration is trying to dress up a problem rather than fix it.
Velazquillo and other undocumented students still will be living in the country illegally, said Domenic Powell, a spokesman for the Raleigh-based NC Dream Team, a group of students who advocate for undocumented youth.
“It's not a solution,” he said. “There seems to be a benefit to it, but it's fleeting. They can work, but for how long? They need to find a permanent solution.”
The Associated Press contributed.