WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's administration Tuesday vastly expanded the number of immigrants in the country illegally who could be targeted for deportation, rolling back Obama-era policies the Republican skewered during his campaign last year.
Two memos released by the Department of Homeland Security give federal immigration agents more latitude to remove anyone in the United States illegally who is suspected of committing a crime — including a traffic offense.
That represents a shift from the Obama administration, which prioritized immigrants convicted of serious crimes.
Trump's administration also intends to expand the use of deportations without review by an immigration court. Under President Barack Obama, expedited deportations were limited to people who had arrived within the previous two weeks, and remained within 100 miles of the border. The new policy applies that authority nationwide, and to any immigrant in the United States for up to two years.
Both policies come at a time of apprehension for the roughly 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally, including an estimated 250,000 in Maryland. Rumors of raids in Baltimore and Montgomery County in recent weeks have sparked fear in those communities, but have been applauded by GOP lawmakers, who say the Obama administration was too lenient.
"Americans spoke loud and clear last November that they expect a return to the rule of law when it comes to immigration," said Republican Rep. Andy Harris of Baltimore County. "These new orders will protect America by sending a clear signal that criminal activity of any kind by illegal aliens will no longer be tolerated."
Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited with Mexican officials and toured the Southwest border over the weekend. He said border agents need cooperation with their counterparts in Mexico, better technology, and more federal investment in intelligence gathering.
"It's not the right message. It's not the right policy," Cardin said. "If they draw the net wider than they do right now, then a lot of innocent people are going to get hurt."
The new directives — which also call for the hiring of 11,000 new immigration agents — come as Democratic majorities in the Maryland General Assembly are considering legislation to restrict the ability of cities and counties to coordinate with the federal government to enforce federal immigration law.
Trump has signed several executive orders dealing with immigration since his inauguration. The memos released Tuesday clarify how the administration will enforce those policies.
They do not change the law, but rather change how the new administration interprets the law. Because of that, there is a good chance some of the policies will be challenged in court.
The guidance directs agents to send certain immigrants who cross the Southwest border back to Mexico, regardless of whether they are Mexican nationals or started their journey in some other country.
It is not clear whether the United States has the authority to require Mexico to accept, for instance, Honduran or Guatemalan citizens just because those people traversed Mexico to enter the United States.
Such a process would likely have to be negotiated with Mexico, where officials are still bristling from Trump's assertion that they will pay for the president's proposed border wall.
Just how much change will take place under Trump is an open question. White House officials indicated Tuesday that the administration would continue to prioritize people who "represent a threat to the public" or "have a criminal record," language similar to that used by the Obama administration.
Tuesday's guidance from Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly was silent on the Obama-era program that deferred deportation for the more than 750,000 young immigrants known as "dreamers." Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which offers green cards to certain immigrants brought to the United States as children, remains in place. Trump said last week he intended to "show great heart" to the dreamers.
The new directives also mostly avoided the issue of sanctuary jurisdictions, such as Baltimore, that have implemented policies that critics say support illegal immigration. The Department of Homeland Security is moving forward with a plan that would publicize instances in which local jurisdictions decline to hold immigrants in their jails at the request of federal agents.
But the memos did not address Trump's vow to strip federal funding from cities and counties that regularly decline those voluntary requests.
While Obama often took flak on his immigration policies from conservatives, his administration deported undocumented immigrants at a record pace — including many without major criminal records. The Baltimore Sun found in 2014 that more than 40 percent of immigrants deported from Maryland under a federal program called Secure Communities had no prior criminal record.
Maryland state lawmakers are considering a bill to prohibit counties from taking part in a program that deputizes local police to serve as immigration agents. Harford and Frederick counties take part in that program. There are 32 such jurisdictions nationwide.
The federal guidance indicated that the Department of Homeland Security intends to expand that program "immediately with all willing and qualified law enforcement jurisdictions." But the wording reinforced the notion that such agreements are voluntary for local governments.
Trump officials signaled Tuesday that the latest guidance is not the last word on those and other issues.
"The last administration had so many carve-outs for who can be and who couldn't be adjudicated, that it made it very difficult for the customs and enforcement people to do their job and enforce the laws of this country," White House press secretary Sean Spicer said.
"What we've done is to make sure that they have the ability and the guidance and the resources to [do] what their mission is — and that's it, plain and simple," he said.
Advocates for immigrants said the administration had signaled Tuesday's announcement for weeks. Still, they said, it was disappointing to see it formalized.
Elizabeth Alex, the Baltimore regional director with CASA, said the immigrant advocacy group is concerned the new policies will tear apart by deporting people who have been in the country for years.
"The most significant break from our existing immigration system is the potential lack of due process, the expansion of the number of people who could be deported without ever seeing a judge, without any access to that entire process," she said. "It's going to get messy."