As the Obama administration prepares to change the way it enforces immigration laws, top officials have been conducting weeks of shuttle diplomacy, touring the country to try to re-enlist police chiefs and mayors in the cause of deporting people convicted of crimes.
Local officials are skeptical after a previous system resulted in the detention and removal of thousands of immigrants ensnared by local law enforcement, many on minor charges. That program, Secure Communities, was scrapped in November by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who said "its very name has become a symbol for general hostility toward the enforcement of our immigration laws."
Secure Communities was intended to focus deportation efforts on immigrants who broke laws after they entered the country. But a Baltimore Sun analysis last year found that more than 40 percent of the immigrants deported from Maryland had no prior criminal record.
That was far higher than the national average, and led then-Gov. Martin O'Malley to restrict the state's cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on so-called immigration detainers — requests that jails hold people until federal agents can pick them up.
The retooled enforcement model, which aims to allay concerns by doing away with most such requests, falls short of resolving the issues that plagued Secure Communities, advocates and local officials around the country say.
"They presented it as a kinder and gentler way for ICE collaborate with local police," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who met last week with two top Homeland Security officials, ICE Director Sarah Saldana and Alejandro Mayorkas, deputy Homeland Security secretary. "I told them it's not kinder or gentler enough."
Under the new system, the Priority Enforcement Program, jails will be asked to notify federal authorities when someone will be released — so agents can be waiting. This time, the agency says, local officials can trust that only people convicted of serious crimes will be targeted.
But the program is already being criticized. Officials are considering whether to continue fingerprinting everyone arrested, information that could be used to deport people who aren't convicted of crimes. Homeland Security, ICE's parent agency, has yet to say whether that practice will end; Johnson has said it should remain in place. Other questions remain about who will be targeted for deportation: only violent criminals, or others who committed no crime besides coming to the U.S. illegally.
The root of the problem is that ICE continues to "mine the criminal justice system" to meet deportation targets, said Chris Newman of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, who was one of a group of advocates who also met last week with Saldana and Mayorkas. As ICE tries to meet those goals, critics say, the agency will likely deport people convicted of less-serious offenses because many of the most serious criminals are serving long jail terms.
"They really, really want to have that talking point of deporting 'felons not families,"' Newman said, using a phrase favored by President Obama when talking about immigration reform. "At a time when everyone's talking criminal justice reform, immigration enforcement is going in the opposite direction."
Liz Alex, an organizer with CASA of Maryland in Baltimore, wants federal officials to speak with activists and local leaders before implementing the new program in the city. She said there are important questions to be answered about who will be considered a priority for enforcement, for example.
"I'm curious to see what happens," she said. "I would hope that DHS will think very carefully about how they roll it out."
Around 250 jurisdictions, including Maryland and several of its counties, have limited cooperation with ICE's requests, called detainers, to hold people until immigration officials can pick them up, according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.
In Los Angeles County, where cooperation is critical to the success of the program, supervisors are scheduled to debate Tuesday whether to go along.
In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter has no intention of resuming cooperation with ICE requests, one city official said, despite a visit last month from Johnson.
"The broader Latino community loses confidence when they see us treating new Philadelphians that way," said Managing Director Richard Negrin. "I think it makes us less safe, to be honest."
When President Barack Obama announced plans last fall to offer temporary legal protection to millions of people living here illegally, he argued that it would make the nation safer by freeing resources to go after serious criminals. But immigration officials have been complaining that it's harder to grab criminals if local officials won't cooperate.
"That was getting to be a bigger and bigger problem in terms of our ability to get at the criminals," Johnson said last month, saying he was in the midst of a "road show" to sell mayors and governors on the new approach.
"The new enforcement program takes two to dance," Johnson said.
Advocates who have fought the detainers say the important question is just who ICE will target for deportation — not how the agents go about picking them up. The department says it has already refined its enforcement priorities, saying they would no longer make a priority of people who had committed no other crime besides being in the country illegally, but advocates say too many people are still being deported because of minor offenses and decade-old convictions.
While it works on the new policy, the department has continued to issue requests for detainers — and most are still being honored, according to ICE.
In the current fiscal year, which began in October, local authorities have rejected 4,230 detainer requests out of 58,500, according to figures provided by ICE.
The overall number of detainer requests have declined since last year, but the number went up in March, from 7,107 to 8,088, the figures show.
The agency's data also shows that most of the 58,500 requests didn't target people convicted of the most serious crimes, called aggravated felonies. There are 16,384 people in that category. Nearly 14,000 were convicted only of misdemeanors, the figures show, while more than 20,746 don't fit any of the three priority definitions at all.
Some of those in the last category might have been accused of serious crimes, but not convicted, an agency spokeswoman said.
Chris Rickerd, policy counsel for the ACLU in Washington, said the figures showing many detainers in low-priority categories was "really disturbing" and suggested the department hadn't yet changed its approach.