During the first two years of the Obama administration, the number of immigrants ordered deported by the courts has declined nearly 10 percentage points, to nearly half off all cases handled in the California-based immigration courts, according to a new report by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a nonpartisan group that tracks detailed government data.
The shift has been most pronounced in San Diego, where 64 percent of cases resulted in deportation in 2009. This year, that number is down to 46 percent. Immigration courts in Los Angeles, Imperial and San Francisco counties, as well as in Lancaster, also have seen decreases in the percentage of cases that resulted in deportation since 2008.
Immigration attorneys said they have noticed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been far more aggressive in its arrests, but the federal courts appear to be giving immigrants more time to sort out their cases and, therefore, avoid deportation for longer periods.
"I see ICE being as aggressive as ever," said Carlos Batara, an immigration attorney in Riverside. "Even if immigration judges are willing to be more lenient and trial attorneys are willing to be more rational or exercise some discretion, I don't see ICE wanting to do so."
Despite the recent trend, the decrease in the number of deportations appears to have stalled for some federal courts in California in the first 10 months of 2011, according to the clearinghouse.
For example, Los Angeles immigration judges deported about 58 percent of their cases in 2008, dropping to about 38 percent in 2010. But the number of deportations for the first 10 months of 2011 was about 47 percent in Los Angeles-based immigration courts, the report showed. Imperial County also saw a small increase in the number of deportations for the first 10 months of 2011.
Ahilan Arulanantham, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said that as local and federal law enforcement step up their immigration sweeps, more people are arrested, but "you're getting a higher number of people who are actually not deportable."
"We're hearing about these lawful permanent residents connected to crimes but who are not deportable," Arulanantham said. "They are sent to immigration detention centers. Once they've been there for a while - routinely, it takes weeks before you get to see a judge at all - you finally see a judge, and the judge looks at it and says, 'Not deportable.' "
Part of the increase can be attributed to the Secure Communities program, which allows local law enforcement agencies and federal authorities to run fingerprints to check for immigration violations and check with immigration officials on whether the suspect should be held in custody. Every California county has joined the Enforcement Case Tracking System, a central database of federal immigration records.
Some immigration attorneys said the system itself is far tougher on immigrants. Clifford Sakata, an attorney with Kazmi & Sakata in San Diego, said, "I think if you ask any immigration lawyer in San Diego, they'll tell you that it's become exponentially more difficult for applicants."
California immigration judges appear to be more lenient than judges in other parts of the U.S. Overall, the records clearinghouse reported that about 70 percent of immigration cases resulted in deportation nationwide. During the first 10 months of 2011, the report said, judges in the nation's immigration courts handled 187,837 cases from ICE, and a total of 132,341 were deported.
The report also found that nationwide, people charged with more series crimes, such as suspected terrorism, were deported only slightly more frequently than others who had violated immigration laws. According to the clearinghouse group, 70.3 percent of those charged with immigration violations were deported and 75.7 percent of those charged with more serious offenses were deported.
The report also found wide variations in the outcome of immigration cases by location. New York City's immigration court was the most lenient, ordering deportation in 28.8 percent of cases. By comparison, the strictest courts ordered defendants deported more than 90 percent of the time.
Judges in Lumpkin, Ga., ordered the defendant deported in 98.8 percent of the cases they heard, while the Tucson court chose deportation in 96.9 percent of its cases. The study noted that these courts heard cases that almost always came from people who already were detained, but most defendants were not charged with criminal activities.
The defendant's nationality, too, was found to make a difference in the outcome of a case. Mexicans were the most likely to be deported, at 86.8 percent, and 81.8 percent of Guatemalans were ordered deported. Immigrants from other parts of the world fared better. Judges deported 13.1 percent of Eritreans, 20.7 percent of Ethiopians, 24.7 percent of Egyptians and Haitians, and 27.8 percent of Iranians.
Read more California investigative reports at CaliforniaWatch.com.