Federal immigration authorities said Friday they're changing the way they enforce immigration policies in an effort to focus on the most serious criminals and to give government field attorneys more discretion.
Many of the changes were prompted by concerns from local law enforcement agencies and communities, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton said Friday during a conference call with reporters.
"We're listening to those concerns and addressing them head-on and directly today," he said.
Some changes will be made to the Secure Communities program, which enables local law enforcement to share fingerprint information with federal agencies to be checked against the FBI criminal database and against immigration databases. The program is a critical tool for law enforcement agencies but needs to be tweaked to "do a better job of ensuring that the program is more focused on targeting those that pose the biggest risk to communities," Morton said.
Critics have said Secure Communities can discourage immigrants from reporting crimes and can lead to the deportation of people who haven't been convicted of any crime. Several states have declined to participate.
A new policy directs ICE officers and attorneys to use appropriate discretion to make sure victims and witnesses to crimes are not put into deportation proceedings.
Morton says he's also creating an advisory committee on changing Secure Communities to focus on serious criminals. A first report, due within 45 days, will provide recommendations on how to avoid deporting people who are charged with, but not convicted of, minor traffic offenses if they have no other criminal history or serious immigration violations.
The agency has also revised its detainer form to emphasize the current guidelines that local authorities aren't to keep any person for more than 48 hours on an immigration hold alone. The detainer form is a document ICE sends to local jurisdictions to signal potentially deportable people to the agency.
ICE has also worked with the Department of Homeland Security's civil rights and civil liberties division to develop a new training program on implementing Secure Communities for state and local law enforcement agencies.
Crystal Williams, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said creation of an advisory panel suggests ICE is listening to critics.
"There was enough said to make me think this may be more than window dressing," she said. "Everything remains to be seen, but the thinking is in the right direction.
Attorneys at the association's annual meeting in San Diego said the more significant development was new guidelines on whom to target for deportation, giving field attorneys and agents more latitude to leave some people alone. Critics have complained that government lawyers have been compelled to cast too wide a net.
"It's going to empower (the field attorneys) to be able to make the right decisions and do the right thing," said Cleveland attorney David Leopold.
Having been in the United States a long time and having family in the country are factors that government attorneys may consider when deciding who to leave alone, said Laura Lichter, a Denver immigration attorney who was briefed by ICE on the new rules. A criminal record or a history of immigration violations would weigh in favor of deportation.
Lichter likened the new rules to instructing a police force to go after bank robbers instead of jaywalkers.
"This is all very commonsense," she said.
Several immigrant rights and civil liberties groups said the changes were encouraging but not enough.
"These changes are nowhere near sufficient to address the well-documented problems with the Secure Communities program that has, thus far, torn apart countless families across the country by funneling people into a detention and deportation system rife with abuse," said Andrea Black, Executive Director of Detention Watch Network, a coalition of organizations and individuals. "The flaws with Secure Communities run so deep that the only solution is termination of the program."
The governors of Massachusetts, Illinois and New York have said their states will not participate in the program. The offices of each of those three governors did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday afternoon. Cities and municipalities in other parts of the country have also declined to participate.
The Department of Homeland Security's acting inspector general Charles Edwards said last week he would begin a review of the program in August rather than later as originally planned.
He said the review will determine the extent to which Immigration and Customs Enforcement uses Secure Communities to find and deport immigrants who are dangerous criminals. Immigration officials check fingerprints of all people booked in local jails to find immigrants to deport.
California Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren had asked the inspector general to investigate whether Homeland Security employees lied to the public, local governments and Congress about Secure Communities after reviewing thousands of federal emails made public.
Lofgren's office declined to comment on the changes Friday, saying the staff hadn't had a chance to thoroughly review them.
Associated Press writer Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.