As of Aug. 31
• Memphis Immigration Court: 4,981
• Atlanta Immigration Court (also covers Alabama proceedings): 6,260
• Stewart Detention Facility Immigration Court: 647
Source: Executive Office for Immigration Review
• On Aug. 18, the Obama administration and the Department of Homeland Security announced the establishment of a joint working group with the Department of Justice. The group will work to make sure resources are focused on the highest immigration priorities, mainly those who pose a threat to public safety and national security, repeat immigration law violators and recent border entrants.
• The group will review 300,000 pending cases one by one.
• Those identified as "low priority" will be administratively closed and the subjects will be eligible to apply for a work permit.
• The group will issue guidance on prosecutorial discretion, including for cases that already have final orders of deportation.
Source: Department of Homeland Security
When Luis Hernandez talked to his mother and heard her crying, he got a bad feeling.
"I'm getting deported," thought the 18-year-old senior at Gordon Central High School in Calhoun, Ga. He had been at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., for two months fighting to stay in the United States.
Instead, she told him he would be back with his family within a few days.
"I started crying," he said several weeks after his Aug. 23 release from the detention center. "It meant a lot."
Hernandez and Dalton, Ga., resident Pedro Morales were among the first nationwide whose cases were administratively closed after the Department of Homeland Security said it would focus deportation efforts on illegal immigrants who are violent criminals or repeat immigration law offenders.
Nationwide, there are about 300,000 pending removal cases to be reviewed. As of Aug. 31, almost 5,000 are pending in the Memphis Immigration Court and more than 6,000 in Atlanta, which includes Alabama, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review.
But a month after the Aug. 18 announcement, no one really knows how the new policy is being implemented or who really will benefit from it.
Joined by his mother, Veronica Arredondo, and his sister, Sharon Morales, Pedro Morales talks about being arrested during a traffic stop and turned over to immigration. He was released after new guidelines call for authorities to focus on deporting unauthorized immigrants with criminal background instead of teens who were brought here as children.
"Basically, all is a little vague right now, which is also causing a lot of problems in the Latino community in particular, who believe the policy is more than what it is," said Charles Kuck, the attorney who represented both North Georgia teens.
Some people think it's an amnesty or they ask for a green card under the "Obama law."
"The lack of clarity, of movement [on this] from the administration is problematic," he added.
Lawyers and community members have heard of people being released under the new guidelines, but it all depends on the officer's discretion.
"At the most, several thousand people will benefit from this. The vast majority of people will not have their deportations canceled. It will be rare," Kuck said.
Homeland Security is working with the Department of Justice on the pending-case review and expects it to begin in the coming months.
In a June memo, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton said prosecutorial discretion should be used especially with veterans, longtime residents, minors, the elderly, women who are nursing or pregnant and victims of domestic violence, among others.
But even people who fit some of these categories are being denied relief, said Jack Richbourg, an attorney with the Siskind Susser firm in Memphis.
"I only had one case where I've asked, and they've denied my request, saying they are exercising their discretion to keep on prosecuting," he said.
His client is a woman who came to the United States when she was 6 years old, has no criminal convictions and is caring for her elderly parents, who are legal permanent residents.
"I see a big gap between what they are talking about in Washington and what they are doing here in Memphis," he said.
Luis Hernandez walks with classmate Russell Smith at Gordon Central High School in Calhoun on Thursday. Hernandez was turned over to ICE and detained over the summer after a traffic stop in Whitfield County, but was recently released after the Obama administration's announcement to focus on deporting people who have violent criminal records.
The administration's move also brought criticism from those who oppose illegal immigration.
"With complete disregard for the millions of unemployed Americans the policy will affect, the administration has already begun closing removal cases of noncriminal illegal aliens and allowing them to apply for work authorization," the Federation for American Immigration Reform said in a news release.
"These illegal aliens now have pseudo-legal status and, in spite of U.S. laws that dictate otherwise, no need to fear deportation under President Obama," it read. The organization submitted a Freedom of Information Act request seeking documents related to the announcement and the effects of the policy.
People whose cases are closed can apply for work permits, but that will also be determined on a case-by-case basis, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Kuck said Hernandez and Morales, who were brought to the U.S. by their parents from Mexico, are in limbo because their cases can be reopened at any time and they don't automatically get any benefits. His plan for the boys includes applying for work permits, but they aren't guaranteed to get them.
Doug Grammer, past chairman of the 9th Congressional District Republican Party, said the government should secure the border before it does anything else.
But if it's about prioritizing, he agrees violent criminal offenders should go first.
"Whether they committed a crime or not, I'm OK with them going back, but I also understand the difficulties of deporting many people," Grammer said. "That being said, anybody that commits a violent crime while being illegal ought to be deported. We don't need them; they are not contributing to society."
How They Got Here
Joined by his mother, Guadalupe Hernandez, and his father, Jose Luis Hernandez, Luis Enrique Hernandez, center, talks about being arrested during a traffic stop and turned over to U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He was released after new guidelines call for authorities to focus on deporting unauthorized immigrants with criminal background instead of teens who were brought here as children.
Hernandez and Morales were detained during separate traffic stops in Dalton that eventually landed them in jail with immigration holds.
The Morales family was celebrating Father's Day at a local restaurant. Pedro Morales, 19, didn't have a driver's license, but that night his father agreed to let him drive.
They took a different route to avoid a car accident, only to come across a road check.
Pedro Morales, who was brought to the United States by his parents when his was 7, was asked for a driver's license. As soon as he said he didn't have one, he was ordered out of the car and handcuffed.
That was the beginning of what became two of the hardest months of his life.
"I never thought something like this would happen to me," said the Whitfield Career Academy 2010 graduate. "I saw how all of my dreams of going to school got farther and farther away."
But he said he never gave up in fighting his case. Dalton is his home. It's where his family and his friends are.
He listens to rock music and to Tim McGraw. He wears boat shoes and Aeropostale shirts.
He was accepted to attend Georgia Northwestern Technical College to be a mechanic. There's black residue around his nails, a testament to a passion for fixing cars that began when he was 10 and watched his friend's dad working under the hood.
Hernandez and a friend were in Dalton to see the movie "Hangover 2." His friend, who was driving, was stopped for not having the lights on.
Hernandez, who arrived in America at age 2, didn't have any identification. He and his friend were booked and charged with possession of marijuana, a charge that his family and his attorney said was later dropped and helped guarantee his release.
The 18-year-old wrestler had never gotten in trouble before. In the county jail and later in the detention center, he was the youngest one there.
"I cried every day," he said, sitting between his parents in their living room. "This ain't a good place to be," he said of the jail.
Guadalupe Hernandez said she was afraid her son would be deported.
"He doesn't have anyone over there. He doesn't even know where he comes from. He doesn't know anyone," she said.
Luis said that during his detention he avoided going outside or looking at the sun because it reminded him of everything he couldn't do: wash the truck with his dad, wrestle with his little brother, eat his mother's enchiladas.
"I kept thinking I'm going to see my parents no more," he said.
At night, he would pray to the Virgen de Guadalupe, "Please give me another chance. I didn't do nothing wrong. Please let me be with my family again."
And he attributes his release to her.
Luis Hernandez listens during a literature class at Gordon Central High School in Calhoun on Thursday. He was turned over to ICE and detained over the summer after a traffic stop in Whitfield County, but was recently released after the Obama administration's announcement to focus on deporting people who have violent criminal records.
The joint working group is also supposed to issue guidelines to prevent, on a case-by-case basis, low-priority cases such as Hernandez and Morales' from entering the system.
Capt. Wes Lynch, who oversees the detention division at the Whitfield County Sheriff's Office, said the department hasn't received any official notifications or guidelines.
The sheriff's office is part of the 287 (g) program, which trains local law enforcement officers to enforce immigration law. Lynch said the memorandum of understanding already says to focus resources on the most serious offenders, but it doesn't say not to process people.
"As far as we are concerned, we are processing people based on whether or not they are in the country illegally because that's the law we are supposed to be enforcing, and we are going to keep doing that because we are able to determine most of the serious offenders we get don't have a serious criminal history prior to that event," he said.
"I just think that it's not possible for us to determine an alien's public safety risk simply by looking at a criminal history," he added.
Greg Siskind, with the law firm in Memphis, said he's not too optimistic right now.
"Being realistic when I talk to clients ... [I'm] telling people don't expect too much change at this point," he said.
But despite the mixed reaction and expectations about what the Department of Homeland Security is going to do, for Pedro Morales it has meant a second chance.
"It changed my life forever," said the soft-spoken Morales. "It made me value what I have."
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...