As city and county jails across the country increasingly refuse federal requests to hold foreigners who have overstayed their visas or slipped across the border, the Obama administration is moving toward a new policy that would limit deportations chiefly to immigrants who have been convicted of violent crimes.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is expected to recommend small but significant changes to Secure Communities, a controversial program that now ranks repeat immigration violators alongside violent criminals on the priority list for deportation.
The change would slow the pace of deportations and potentially ease concerns of immigrants who now fear any contact with police. It also could help relieve political pressure on the White House from labor and Latino groups that have criticized President Obama as the "deporter in chief" for his administration's aggressive enforcement of immigration laws.
Advocates say the move would help local police concentrate on dangerous criminals and make immigration enforcement more "humane," as the president ordered in March.
Obama is driven by "the issues and concerns of families being separated" but is leaving the policy analysis to Johnson, said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.
In private meetings with police, Johnson has said he is considering limiting when immigration agents can contact local jails to ask them to hold undocumented immigrants. In a May 15 interview with "PBS NewsHour," he said Secure Communities needed "a fresh start."
Republican leaders in Congress have made clear they would oppose any effort to scale back Secure Communities through rule changes while a proposed overhaul of immigration law is stalled in the House.
In 2012, facing a similar outcry from pro-reform advocacy groups, Obama acted to stop the deportation of hundreds of thousands of undocumented young people, so-called "dreamers" brought to the U.S. as children, through a program that he ordered without congressional approval.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) warned that changing regulations now to slow deportations more could further sour White House relations with suspicious House Republicans and douse hopes of reaching a permanent legislative solution this year.
"Until the president gives us some confidence that we can trust him to implement an immigration reform bill," Boehner said, "we really don't have much to talk about."
Secure Communities, which began under the George W. Bush administration, was meant to coordinate federal enforcement efforts with immigration procedures in every city and town.
The FBI collects fingerprints of anyone arrested or booked by local or state police to see if he or she has a criminal record, is a fugitive or is wanted elsewhere. Under Secure Communities, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials can check those fingerprints against immigration databases to see if a suspect is in the country illegally or deportable because of a criminal conviction.
More than 283,000 people were deported under the program between 2008 and April of this year, according to ICE.
The program asks state and local law enforcement agencies to hold detainees up to 48 hours, plus weekends if necessary, until an ICE agent arrives. Only federal officers are authorized to enforce immigration laws.
But many police chiefs say that Secure Communities has made undocumented immigrants less likely to come forward to report crimes when they have been victims or witnesses, and that it has strained local budgets as jails hold nonviolent prisoners.
"The immigrant community are the prey; they are not the predators," said Ron Teachman, chief of police in South Bend, Ind. "We need them to be the eyes and ears. They are exploited in their workplace, in their neighborhoods and in their own homes with domestic violence."
The number of cities and counties that cooperate with Secure Communities has grown from 14 in 2008 to more than 3,000 today, including all those along the Southwest border with Mexico, according to ICE.
But a growing number of communities are refusing to participate.
California, Connecticut and the District of Columbia passed laws limiting cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities. In addition, 12 cities and at least 37 counties in Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin have adopted similar policies.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter decided on April 16 that city police would no longer automatically honor requests to hold immigrants for deportation. Two days later, Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley of Maryland announced a similar policy reversal for the state-run Baltimore City Detention Center.
Across the country, in Portland, Ore., U.S. District Judge Janice M. Stewart ruled April 11 that detention requests from ICE do not provide sufficient legal basis to hold an immigrant in a local jail. After the decision, 26 of the state's 36 counties said they would also stop cooperating with ICE.
Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization based in Washington, D.C., that advocates for lower immigration levels, called the backlash a threat to public safety.
"To suggest that sheriffs can individually decide if they would comply with an ICE hold or not — it's a broad threat to the constitutional framework under which immigration law exists," Stein said.