President Barack Obama speaks in Baltimore in May. (Baltimore Sun )
WASHINGTON — — Obama administration officials are considering allowing bond hearings for immigrants in prolonged detention, officials said, a shift that could slow the pace of deportations because immigration courts fast-track cases of incarcerated immigrants.
Several thousand immigrants could be released from jails across the country if judges are allowed to hear their cases and grant bond, advocates say.
The issue is particularly acute for Maryland, where those picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement are likely to spend far more time in detention centers than those apprehended in other states.
The proposal is one of several being floated as the White House scrambles to ease concerns of Hispanic groups and other traditional allies that have turned on President Obama in recent weeks.
Some called him "deporter in chief" and excoriated his administration for expelling immigrants who could qualify for legal papers under the immigration overhaul bill that passed the Senate last year but then stalled in the GOP-led House.
Obama has tried to keep attention focused on Republicans, rather than his record on deportations. He took the GOP to task Wednesday for failing to pass the immigration bill introduced a year ago by a bipartisan group of senators.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, responded with a sharp critique, saying Obama had shown "no sincere desire to work together" with Republicans.
With legislation at an apparent impasse, the White House is expected to roll out several administrative changes, such as bond hearings, to reduce deportations in coming months.
Immigrants initially taken into custody in Maryland spent an average of 80 days in detention compared to the national average of 31 days, according to researchers at the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. About 11 percent of immigrants picked up in Maryland spent more than six months detained, compared with a national average of 3 percent.
The numbers left the state ranked second-worst behind Massachusetts out of the 30 states reviewed by the 2012 study.
Those immigrants aren't necessarily held in Maryland; many are transferred to out-of-state detention centers.
Government data don't show in which state people are actually held, only where they were initially taken in. And immigrants in federal custody are frequently transferred, often to larger facilities near the U.S. border. There are several detention sites in Maryland, including the Worcester County jail, where more than 450 immigrants were detained in 2008, according to the TRAC data.
"There is a serious, serious issue of people in long-term detention," said Kim Propeack with the CASA de Maryland immigrant advocacy group. "And Maryland is in this dubious position of having some of the worst statistics in the country."
It's not clear why an immigrant initially held in Maryland would wind up spending more time in the system.
Obama has instructed Jeh Johnson, the new secretary of Homeland Security, to review immigration enforcement policies and suggest ways to make them "more humane." Since then, Johnson has met with lawmakers and community leaders, as well as front line immigration officers, but hasn't said when he will make his recommendations.
Officials are considering scrapping current instructions on who to deport and drafting memos that set new priorities.
Immigration agents now are supposed to focus first on expelling immigrants who have entered the country illegally within the last three years, for example, as well as those with criminal records, and those with repeat immigration violations.
The proposed revisions would shorten the time from three years to two weeks, and remove repeat violators from the priority list. The new directives also would instruct officers to consider whether detainees have close family ties in the United States.
Maryland also has among the worst track records of deporting non-criminals under a controversial program known as Secure Communities. The initiative was initially intended to capture for removal immigrants who committed crimes after they entered the country in illegally, but a Baltimore Sun analysis this year found that more than 40 percent of those deported since 2009 had no prior criminal record — a far greater share than the national average.
Many of those Secure Communities deportations occurred quickly — within weeks — because those immigrants had long-standing deportations orders on file. By contrast, many of the immigrants being held for an extended period of time have a compelling reason to fight their deportation, such as a case for asylum.
Joanne Lin, a legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said bond hearings would make immigration enforcement more fair.
"If your liberty is going to be taken away, separated from your family, you need to be able to have your day in court and see an immigration judge," Lin said.
Recent court decisions have required immigration agents to present to judges foreigners held in detention longer than six months in California and Massachusetts. In other states, immigration agents usually decide if someone facing deportation needs to be held in jail while the immigration court considers the case.
Some 871 of 1,262 immigration detainees, or more than two thirds, who were given bond hearings after a September 2012 federal district court ruling in California were ordered released on bond, or released with an ankle monitor, regular check-ins, or other restrictions, according to the ACLU, which has advocated for the fix.
Justice Department lawyers have spent years fighting proposals to require bond hearings, arguing that they would strain resources and that detention should be mandatory for criminal detainees. The administration has not yet decided whether to drop its objections to the federal court's decision, or appeal to the Supreme Court.