Some 100 protesters came to Government Center this week, waving signs and chanting slogans for Denis Lemos and his friend Vinny Quirino, both 25-year-olds who had been fighting deportation to Brazil. The protesters wanted a reprieve.
But then Lemos stood before the crowd and delivered the news.
“I got my call,’’ he said as applause broke out. “I am no longer in removal proceedings. My case is going to be closed.’’
Quirino’s stay of deportation followed soon afterward. Some immigrants and their advocates say those decisions may be a sign that the Obama administration is finally acting on a federal directive issued five months ago to consider setting aside the deportations of students, the elderly, and other immigrants in order to more quickly deport convicted criminals and other high-priority cases.
The shift was heralded in June, when the director of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a memo urging federal immigration officials to “regularly’’ use their discretion to keep low-priority cases from clogging up the immigration courts.
But advocates for immigrants complained that many federal agents were not following the memo, and that students such as Lemos, an engineering major at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, remained in deportation proceedings.
Then, last week, Homeland Security officials said that by Jan. 13, immigration agents and prosecutors nationwide would undergo training in prosecutorial discretion, a longstanding tool that lets them consider a variety of special circumstances when deciding whether to pursue deportation. Officials also said they would screen immigration court cases in stages to ensure that they match the department’s priorities.
Immigrant groups want the government to more consistently stay the cases of people who have not committed a crime. But federal officials warned that they cannot rush the decision of whether to grant a stay or deport someone. Each case is decided on its merits, and immigrants must be scrutinized for possible risks to public safety and national security.
“While I understand that there’s probably some consternation and probably some frustration as well, the reality is that we have an obligation to do this right,’’ said a senior official in the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees immigration, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We’re moving as fast as we can.’’
It is unclear how many people would be affected by broader use of prosecutorial discretion. There are approximately 300,000 cases pending in immigration court nationwide and more than 8,000 in the Boston court, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
Gregory Chen, director of advocacy for the Washington-based American Immigration Lawyers Association, called the federal government’s efforts to train agents in the use of prosecutorial discretion, and other steps, “a very positive step.’’
“They are trying to ensure that there’s training in the field,’’ he said, but added, “The proof is really going to be in the pudding here. It’s the agency leadership’s responsibility to ensure that their directives, their priorities, are followed in the field.’’
Immigrants who are granted stays of deportation are not authorized to stay in the United States permanently and could be placed in deportation proceedings in the future, immigration officials said, but they can apply for work permits.
Advocates for immigrants say confusion remains widespread among immigrants about why some immigrants are benefiting from prosecutorial discretion, while others are not. Federal immigration agents rarely explain their decisions, they say.
In Springfield, Michael Thomas is a married gay man facing deportation to Trinidad and Tobago, where homosexuality is illegal. In August, his hopes soared when Obama administration officials said they would consider same-sex couples “families’’ when deciding to grant prosecutorial discretion.
But federal officials recently denied his request without explanation.
Ross Feinstein, spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, declined to explain why federal officials rejected Thomas’s request for prosecutorial discretion, even though Thomas signed a privacy waiver allowing them to discuss his case.
Thomas, 35, married his longtime partner, John Brandoli, last year, but cannot apply to stay in the country based on marriage because federal law does not recognize same-sex unions. He has no criminal record and has the support of Immigration Equality, a New York-based nonprofit, and Senator John Kerry, who wrote a letter on his behalf.
Kerry criticized the system for discriminating against same-sex couples.
“This is a law-abiding, lawfully married couple being denied basic civil rights solely because they’re gay. . .,’’ Kerry said in a prepared statement. “We’ve got a vicious cycle where protections for some Massachusetts families are not protections for all.’’
Thomas said he came to America in 2005 after vandals scrawled gay slurs on his apartment walls, and after his gay friends suffered beatings. He had hoped to obtain asylum, but said he received legal advice from an organization that was later investigated in New York.
If he returns to Trinidad, he says, he would fear for his life. His immediate family there doesn’t know he is gay. He told an aunt three years ago, and she hasn’t spoken to him since.
“I’m scared out of my mind,’’ said Thomas, whose case is pending before the Board of Immigration Appeals. “I don’t want to get physically harmed or even killed just because I’m gay.’’