7 Republicans on judicial panel demand inquiry
By SUSAN CARROLL and STEWART POWELL, HOUSTON CHRONICLE
Oct. 22, 2010, 6:06AM
The seven Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday called for an investigation into the dismissal of hundreds of immigration cases in Houston, accusing Homeland Security officials of selectively enforcing the law.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn and six GOP colleagues on the powerful panel wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano demanding a full report on the dismissals by Nov. 15.
In early August, Homeland Security trial attorneys started filing unsolicited motions to dismiss hundreds of cases on Houston's immigration court docket involving suspected illegal immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for more than two years without committing serious crimes.
News of the dismissals, first reported in the Houston Chronicle in late August, caused a national controversy amid allegations that the Obama administration was implementing a kind of "backdoor amnesty" — a charge officials strongly denied.
"It appears that your department is enforcing the law based on criteria it arbitrarily chose, with complete disregard for the enforcement laws created by Congress," the senators wrote. "The repercussions of this decision extend beyond removal proceedings, because it discourages officers from even initiating new removal proceedings if they believe the case ultimately will be dismissed."
According to data from the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which administers the nation's immigration court system, the number of dismissals in Houston courts shot up from 27 in July to 271 in August, an increase of more than 700 percent. In September, judges dismissed 174 pending cases.
In other cities
Immigration attorneys in several other cities, including Dallas and Miami, were reporting recent increases in case dismissals, although there was no national data available this week.
Matt Chandler, a DHS spokesman, said Thursday the agency will respond directly to the senators.
"The idea that DHS is engaged in 'selective enforcement' couldn't be further from the truth," Chandler said. "In fact, this administration has fundamentally changed the way the federal government approaches immigration enforcement, doing more to keep criminal aliens who are threats to public safety - including murderers, rapists and child molesters - off our streets than ever before."
Despite reporting record deportation numbers this year, the Obama administration has been criticized by Republicans as lax on immigration enforcement, particularly in the run-up to the November elections.
The senators took particular issue with the fact that some of the illegal immigrants who had their cases dismissed had criminal records, although DHS criteria required that they have no convictions for felonies or certain misdemeanors, including sex crimes, driving under the influence or family violence.
"Numerous criminal aliens are being released into society and are having proceedings terminated simply because ICE has decided that such cases do not fit within the Department's chosen enforcement priorities," the senators wrote.
Supporters of the review said it will help immigration agents better target dangerous, felony offenders for deportation and cull cases from the nation's overburdened immigration court system. In June, the number of pending immigration cases nationally reached 247,922, including 7,444 in Houston.
"I don't see how they can handle this unless they prioritize," said John Nechman, a Houston immigration attorney. "They need to do something to move the less serious cases off so they can really focus on those that are more important."
The dismissals do not convey any kind of legal status, so recipients remain illegal immigrants and cannot work legally in the U.S.
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