Story highlights

Pilot program looks at effect of new protocols on immigrants in two cities

Of 11,682 immigration cases reviewed, officials recommend closing 1,667 cases

Department of Homeland Security says pilot program's results are preliminary

CNN  — 

U.S. immigration officials, testing controversial new protocols that give them discretion to “administratively close” immigration cases instead of taking them to court, have recommended that about 14% of the nearly 12,000 cases reviewed thus far be closed, allowing those people to remain in the United States.

Of the 11,682 immigration cases reviewed in two test cities – Baltimore and Denver – officials have recommended closing 1,667 cases, provided they pass a final background check.

The Department of Homeland Security cautioned the numbers are preliminary, and do not reflect the ultimate number that will be closed.

“For a variety of reasons, including the results of background checks, the final results of the pilot programs will likely differ from these preliminary numbers,” Department of Homeland Security official Kim Baronof wrote in a memo obtained by CNN.

If the 14% were to hold consistent for the 300,000 cases pending before the immigration courts, approximately 42,000 immigrants would bypass the courts and be permitted to stay in the United States.

The Obama administration has touted the use of “prosecutorial discretion” as “smart and effective immigration enforcement,” saying it will allow undocumented aliens to stay in the United States in special cases. Immigration officials who make the decisions must consider a long list of factors, such as whether the undocumented immigrant served in the U.S. military, has roots in the community or serves as care provider for a person in need. Prior administrations used similar discretion in vetting cases, Obama administration officials have said.

But critics call the program a “backdoor amnesty program,” saying the administration is trying to accomplish through executive fiat what it could not accomplish legislatively.

“If these results play out nationwide, tens of thousands of illegal immigrants will benefit and tens of thousands of Americans will find it harder to get jobs. How can the Obama administration justify granting work authorization to illegal immigrants when so many American citizens don’t have jobs?” said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

The administration said the new policy gives immigration officials guidelines on which immigration cases to pursue, with the highest priority being on people who pose a danger to public safety or national security, or who are egregious immigration law violators.

But the program is still in its infancy, and will face questions from both supporters and opponents, including why there is a discrepancy in approvals in Baltimore, where about 9.7% of the cases were administratively closed, and Denver, where 16% were closed.

DHS told Congress it will brief congress members once the pilot program is completed.