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ALICIA A. CALDWELL

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Many illegal immigrants who were facing deportation despite having no criminal record will be allowed to stay in the country and apply for a work permit under new rules from the Homeland Security Department. Republicans are balking at the change.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced Thursday that the department will focus on deporting illegal immigrants who are criminals or pose a threat to national security or public safety.

Napolitano announced the plan in a letter to a group of senators who support revamping the immigration system. Under the change, approximately 300,000 deportation cases pending in immigration court will be reviewed case by case.

“From a law enforcement and public safety perspective, DHS enforcement resources must continue to be focused on our highest priorities,” Napolitano wrote in the letter. “Doing otherwise hinders our public safety mission — clogging immigration court dockets and diverting DHS enforcement resources away from individuals who pose a threat to public safety.”

The decision comes amid continued protests from immigrant communities and others that the administration has been too focused on deporting people whose only offense is being in the country without the proper documents or who have been arrested for traffic violations or other misdemeanors. There have also been widespread complaints about Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Secure Communities program, which uses fingerprints collected in state and local jails to identify illegal immigrants in a federal immigration database.

States have balked at the program, arguing it requires them to enforce federal laws. There have also been complaints that immigrants arrested for simple misdemeanors can end up in deportation proceedings.

ICE Director John Morton responded to some critics in June with a six-page memo to ICE agents outlining when and how discretion should be used. That guidance covered those potentially subject to a legislative proposal, known as the DREAM Act, intended to give young illegal immigrants who go to college or serve in the military a chance at legal status.

Morton also suggested that agents consider how long someone has been in the United States, whether immediate family members are U.S. citizens and whether that person has a criminal record.

Napolitano said in her letter that the policy change was part of implementing that prosecutorial discretion.

While advocates and Democratic lawmakers greeted the announcement with a chorus of approval, Republicans recoiled at the policy change.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said the shift is the administration’s “plan to grant backdoor amnesty to illegal immigrants.”

“They have created a working group that appears to have the specific purpose of overruling, on a ‘case-by-case’ basis, an immigration court’s final order of removal, or preventing that court from even issuing such an order,” Smith said in a statement. “The Obama administration should enforce immigration laws, not look for ways to ignore them. The Obama administration should not pick and choose which laws to enforce.”

Fellow Texas Republican Rep. Michael McCaul said the plan circumvents Congress.

“It is just the latest attempt by this president to bypass the intended legislative process when he does not get his way,” McCaul said. “The fact that we have a backlog and prioritize 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 9 percent of Americans who are still looking for jobs.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who has been outspoken in her support for comprehensive immigration reform, said the new policy was a welcome change.

“I think this in some ways is past due, but I’m glad that it’s happening now,” Lofgren said.

She added the plan is fair to immigrants and makes economic sense, given the need to cut billions of dollars from the federal budget.

Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, called the case-by-case review “a very positive step forward” but said more should be done to overhaul immigration rules.

“I hope the department will pursue additional initiatives to keep American families together by allowing immigrant spouses and children of U.S. citizens to apply for visas from within the United States based on an expanded and broad list of humanitarian factors,” Melendez said.

Others, including illegal immigrants hoping for legislative relief that could include the DREAM Act, worry that the policy may not go far enough.

“I’m still careful of celebrating,” said Tania Unzueta, a 27-year-old graduate student in Chicago who came to the United States with her family when she was 10 years old. “I really want to see what it looks like and what it comes with. In the past few years, every time there’s something good for immigrants, there’s also something really bad.”

Laura Lichter, president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the devil was in the details of reviewing 300,000 cases.

But whatever the result, she said, the policy does bring administrative changes to the immigration system at a time when congressional action seems unlikely.

Many Republicans have long opposed any immigration overhaul, including the DREAM Act, characterizing such proposals as amnesty.

While the new policy does not provide illegal immigrants with a path to permanent residency, it does allow those whose cases are indefinitely stayed to apply for a work permit. The government could also reopen deportation cases if an immigrant is arrested or other circumstances in their case change.

“Congress is so stuck in its partisan politics, the immigration situation is getting worse and worse and worse,” Lichter said. “This is the administration’s only way, and frankly a very appropriate way, to come up with an interim fix.”

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