San Francisco Immigration Court to Grant Reprieves in Removal Cases

April 6, 2012

This summer the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) will suspend the operations of the San Francisco Immigration Court for a few days so that federal attorneys can comb the caseload to determine the low-priority cases to shelve from the court schedule. The San Francisco Immigration Court faces one of the biggest caseloads in the nation. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) expects that the prioritization of the prosecution of high-risk immigrants with records of major crimes will provide hundreds of low-risk immigrants currently in removal proceedings a partial reprieve if they have no criminal record and can demonstrate strong community linkages.

The reassessment of the immigration court docket reflects the shift in immigration policy ushered in by the Obama Administration last August. Facing an overburdened immigration caseload and limited institutional resources, the federal government announced a new removal policy that would focus on immigrants who have committed serious crimes and allow immigration officers to exercise greater discretion in recommending the suspension of removal of low-risk immigrants not considered a threat to public safety. Due to the policy change, the immigration courts in Baltimore and Denver ran a six-week pilot program, in which over 10% of the roughly 11,000 cases reviewed were dropped. In comparison, the San Francisco Court has about 17,000 pending cases on its schedule.

As an immigration lawyer in Silicon Valley, I am pleased to hear that many low-risk, undocumented immigrants who are otherwise upstanding members of the community will receive stays in removal. Among the beneficiaries expected to receive partial reprieves are students brought to the United States at an early age. For such individuals in particular, the upcoming caseload review addresses humanitarian concerns, as many undocumented students, growing up most of their lives in the U.S., do not possess any ties to their countries of origin.

I emphasize, however, that the grant of partial reprieves is not an all-encompassing solution for undocumented immigrants. While a stay in removal allows an immigrant to remain in the U.S., it does not confer any positive immigration benefits, such as lay out a path for legal permanent residence. Instead, beneficiaries of the caseload review will remain in institutional limbo; they will not obtain legal work authorization, the right to apply for public benefits, or other privileges customarily afforded an immigrant with a positive immigration status. In fact, in some cases, undocumented immigrants may be better off proceeding with full immigration hearings, which provide the possibility of obtaining some immigration benefits.

The immigration court moreover reserves the right to reinstitute removal proceedings against beneficiaries of reprieves at any point in the future. The effect is that for such persons, their future ability to remain in the U.S. is uncertain.

The EOIR plans to expand the caseload review program across the country. Beginning in late April, Detroit, New Orleans, Orlando and Seattle will start review of their immigration court caseloads. The New York City court will follow suit in May, followed by San Francisco in June and Los Angeles in July.