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The current surge of Central Americans crossing the border is not the first time in recent history a spike in illegal immigration followed a U.S. president’s unilateral suspension of some deportations.

From November 1998 to January 1999, the U.S. saw a rare 86 percent increase in the number of illegal aliens crossing from Central America who were not from Mexico. A total of 6,555 were detained during that three-month period. Most were from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

The surge immediately followed a moratorium issued by President Bill Clinton in the wake of the devastating October 1998 Hurricane Mitch. Clinton’s edict temporarily suspended deportations of illegals to Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua until Jan. 7, 1999, at the earliest. Those countries were hardest hit by the natural disaster.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service, the precursor to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, described the temporary suspension as “a humanitarian effort to help the four governments cope with the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch.”

While Clinton’s memorandum only extended to illegal aliens who could prove they had arrived by Dec. 30, 1998, that didn’t stop the flood of crossings by illegals originating in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Along with the suspension in deportations, Clinton also issued $1 billion in aid purportedly for the hurricane victims. However, the relief package reportedly included $80 million earmarked for 3,000 more detention spaces in the U.S. for the newly arriving illegal aliens who crossed en masse after Clinton’s deportation halt.

The Obama administration has issued numerous orders essentially suspending deportations, prompting a major spike in illegal crossings.

The first of two “Priority Memos” on immigration enforcement policies under Obama was issued June 30, 2010, by John Morton, then an assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security and director of ICE.

Morton set the removal of “aliens” who posed a “danger to national security” as the highest priority, with other Priority 1 illegal immigrants being those who are/were either engaged in or suspected of terrorism or espionage or “who otherwise pose a danger to national security,” had been convicted of crimes, with a “particular emphasis on violent criminals, felons, and repeat offenders,” were 16 years of age and older but who had participated in organized criminal gangs,were subject to outstanding criminal warrants and who otherwise posed a “serious risk to public safety.”

A second Morton memo followed Aug. 20, 2010. It narrowly addressed the “processing of certain cases in the immigration courts.” In particular, it focused on illegal immigrants who “simultaneously [had] an application or petition for legal status pending before U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) while facing removal proceedings in immigration court.”

The memo instructed ICE attorneys to “dismiss removal proceedings” for the thousands of people who had applications or petitions pending with USCIS and who would be eligible for “adjustment of status to permanent residence upon approval of the petition.”

The memo also instructed ICE attorneys to “expedite approval of applications or petitions by USCIS even where proceedings [were] not terminated.”

Drawing from his previous memos, Morton issued a third on June 17, 2011, instructing all field officers, special field agents in charge and chief counsel to exercise prosecutorial discretion with civil immigration enforcement priorities in the apprehension, detention and removal of illegals.

Included were broad new factors his staff was to consider: an illegal’s “contributions to the community, including family relationships; the person’s age, with particular consideration given to minors and the elderly; whether the person or the person’s spouse is pregnant or nursing.”

Among scores of other disqualifications for removal, the instructions included a mandate for leniency for “individuals present in the United States since childhood and individuals with serious health conditions.”

In August 2011, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano announced a two-pronged initiative to limit deportations to people deemed by her department as the most dangerous to the country, rather than on the whole general population of millions of illegal aliens.

The Obama administration, she said, would limit deportation proceedings on a case-by-case basis for illegals who met certain criteria, such as attending school, having family members in the military or having primary responsibility for other family members’ care.

There was another major shift in deportation policy that month. The Obama administration took a new approach for the 300,000 pending deportation cases in federal deportation courts. The lower priority cases, those not involving individuals considered violent or otherwise dangerous, would be suspended.

The Obama administration also admitted the estimated 300,000 illegal immigrants could have their deportations deferred indefinitely and become eligible for work permits.

With research by Brenda J. Elliott.

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