A smiling young mother hugs her daughter in a picture sent with an invitation to a press conference to "Rally in support of Araceli."

Beside the photo is a message: "Call Janet Napolitano. Stop the deportation of Arizona dreamer, Araceli Torres-Ruiz!"

A coalition of Southern Arizona immigrant-rights organizations that has successfully lobbied for deportation reprieves for two other Tucson illegal immigrants this year has shifted its support to this 28-year-old mother of two, who was brought to the U.S. illegally as a child.

Even though Torres-Ruiz hasn't yet received a reprieve, her supporters remain optimistic. And they're not just going on blind faith - the number of illegal immigrants in Arizona given reprieves from pending deportations reached a five-year high in fiscal year 2010.

Although nine out of 10 illegal immigrants facing deportation were ordered to leave the country in the recently completed fiscal year, the percentage given some sort of relief by federal immigration judges in Arizona nearly doubled in the past five years - to 9.3 percent in fiscal 2010, up from 4.8 percent in 2005, according to figures from the Executive Office for Immigration Review. Fiscal 2010 ended Sept. 30.

Also, the number of people granted deferred action by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, has doubled in Arizona over the same period - to 31 in fiscal 2010, up from 15 in 2005, ICE figures show.

Immigrant-rights groups are hoping to get a deferred-action grant for Torres-Ruiz as they did for Alfonso Morales-Macias in September and Marlen Moreno Peralta in August.

Deferred action is a discretionary tool ICE officials can use to help people in special circumstances. It does not give legal permanent residency, but it allows someone to work until his or her status is resolved. The action is usually given for one year at a time but can be renewed as many years as deemed necessary.

The uptick in reprieves from immigration judges tracks with a national trend, but the increase in deferred actions contrasts with national numbers.

Both contrast with a twofold increase in total deportations by ICE in Arizona and nationally.

The increase in reprieves shows the Obama administration is intentionally leaving noncriminal illegal immigrants alone as officials work to find and deport illegal immigrants who have committed crimes beyond entering the country illegally, said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an anti-illegal-immigration lobby group based in Washington, D.C.

"They have not been able to get a formal version of amnesty through," Mehlman said, "so what they are doing is saying, 'If you are here illegally and not a menace to society, we will allow you to stay.' "

But immigration attorneys say the reprieve rate is still too low and that more illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay.

"People who are not criminals are still being deported on a regular basis and not given the opportunity to remain in the United States and prove their worth to the country," said Maurice Goldman, a Tucson immigration attorney.

Court reprieves

The rise in reprieves from immigration judges in Arizona follows a trend at immigration courts across the country.

The number of people who had their cases terminated or were granted relief accounted for 24 percent of the approximately 229,000 cases nationwide last fiscal year, up from 19 percent the previous year and 14 percent in 2005, according to figures compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. The Syracuse University-based organization, commonly known as TRAC, gathers, analyzes and distributes data on federal enforcement, staffing and spending.

In cases where immigration judges grant relief, a person facing deportation is allowed to stay and is given some kind of legal status based on his or her situation. This can include being granted asylum or legal permanent residency when a person demonstrates exceptional hardship.

If a case is terminated, a judge finds someone not deportable as charged by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The person could be found to be a U.S. citizen or a legal permanent resident who has not committed a deportable offense.

In its recent report, TRAC said the rise in reprieves granted by immigration judges could be because ICE - in its eagerness to increase its deportation numbers - has been sending more people before immigration judges who shouldn't be deported. But the organization says ICE has refused to provide the necessary information to reach a firm conclusion.

ICE spokesman Brian Hale said via e-mail that the TRAC report fails to account for many factors, including that immigration courts can independently allow illegal immigrants to remain in the country.

In Arizona, most of the increase in reprieves over the past five years has come in the Phoenix, Eloy and Florence immigration courts. In the Tucson court, the number of people getting relief has actually decreased from 10 percent of cases in 2007 to 3 percent in 2010.

Deferred action

ICE officials won't say why Morales-Macias and Moreno were chosen for deferred action, but it could be because they were brought here as children, like Moreno, or have been living here since 1996, like Morales-Macias.

A leaked internal memo from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that surfaced last summer reveals a suggestion to provide relief to those two groups. The year 1996 would replace Jan. 1, 1972, which is now in a section of immigration law.

"Rather than making deferred action widely available to hundreds of thousands and as a non-legislative version of 'amnesty,' USCIS could tailor the use of this discretionary option for particular groups," the memo said.

But ICE figures show there was actually a decrease in deferred-action cases granted nationwide in fiscal 2010. The 549 granted were 37 percent fewer than the 870 issued in 2009 and 44 percent fewer than the 976 issued in 2005.

It appears that while some local ICE offices might be looking more favorably at people that fit the criteria in the leaked memo, there's been no national shift in action, said Mary Kenney, senior attorney at the American Immigration Council, a Washington, D.C.-based immigrants-rights organization.

"Those numbers are very low," Kenney said, "when you think about the number of people that ICE comes in contact with."


Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or bmccombs@azstarnet.com