Denver is one of two cities, the other being Baltimore, that will conduct a new pilot program aimed at implementing the Obama administration's new immigration policy that was announced in June.
The six-week pilot period, which began this week in Denver, is part of the initial implementation of the administration's new "prosecutorial discretion" guidelines for dealing with undocumented immigrants. The policy states unauthorized immigrants facing deportation, who have no criminal record and meet certain criteria, could be indentified as low priority cases for immigration enforcement and have their cases administratively closed.
During a Dec. 8 press call, local leaders and members of Colorado's immigrant community discussed how the new program affects them. Many applaud the initiative as a positive step forward. They aim to study and gauge how broadly the policy is applied and determine its real impact on local immigrants and their families.
"This is an exciting and new development that will hopefully provide immediate relief to thousands of members of the immigrant community in Denver and hopefully throughout the country," said Julie Gonzales, director of organizing with the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition.
On the call was Laura Lichter, president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Denver. She described prosecutorial discretion in terms of a jaywalker and a bank robber. She said police should naturally go after the bank robber rather than the jaywalker. When it comes to immigration enforcement, officials should use discretion and focus their resources on hardened criminals rather than low priority cases where the person does not pose any danger or threat to our community and national security.
Lichter notes there are 300,000 cases pending nationwide. She says a recent study found only one in 12 of those within that docket actually have a criminal record.
"Prosecutorial discretion doesn't refer to a single point in the process; it's a principle that should be implemented at every step of the process," she said. "Smart use of prosecutorial discretion will ensure smart intelligent enforcement."
Raul Cardenas was facing possible deportation. However his case was administratively closed this week and he and his wife benefited from the new discretion policy. Yet Cardenas feels trapped and in limbo, despite the recent news.
"I still cannot work and I can't support my family," he said. "I feel like I'm useless."
His wife Judy said they married over nine years ago. She petitioned to adjust his status shortly after they were married.
"But here we are, still waiting in line and behaving ourselves," she said. "We've spent ten years and thousands of dollars to get the government to recognize the legitimacy of our relationship and our family, and what we got was having our hearing cancelled this week. Now we're even more in limbo than we were before, because Raul can't leave the country and he can't work either to support his family."
She mentioned how the uncertainty and fear has affected their family, especially their children.
"This is not just an immigrant problem, this is a citizen issue," she said. "We are tired of the fear, and we would like the government to leave alone legitimate and loving families like ours. We are American families and we are not a threat to our community or public safety. Raul is an amazing husband and a wonderful father."
Hoping to benefit from the new pilot program and also on the call was young Gerardo Noriega who hopes the new policy doesn't tear him away from his family. He has been living in Colorado for 12 years and migrated with his parents there when he was nine years old. He has attended elementary and middle school and graduated from high school in Colorado.
"I have dreams to continue my education by going to college one day," he said. "I think this pilot program can really help me and other Dreamers like me. Young people like me, who qualify for the federal DREAM Act, are really American. We consider the United States as our only home and we just want to be able to contribute to the country we love and have lived in for so many years," he said.
Hans Meyer, Noriega's attorney, said he represents a perfect example of the type of person for whom discretion should be exercised. "I'm very hopeful that the government will grant discretion and more importantly, will grant the right kind of discretion in his case, so he can work toward regularizing his status, completing his degree and achieving his dreams," said Meyer.
Latinos make up 34.2 percent of Denver's population, making the city one of the highest populated areas of Latino residents in the country.
Gonzales with the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition said the recent policy changes are a direct result of her group's collaboration with other national and local immigrant rights groups.
"While this project could provide relief to hundreds of immigrants, it is not a substitute for real immigration reform," said Gonzales. "There are millions of people in this country who need to be put on a path toward citizenship, who are not going to be affected by this limited program."
She said Colorado voters will be keenly watching how the administration takes the right action on immigration and that discretion is used to benefit families in order to make significant changes in people's lives.
"We will be watching over the next six weeks to see how the administration conducts their review and we aim to ensure that the process is transparent and accountable," she concluded.
Photo: Gerardo Noriega. Courtesy of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition.