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Will Obama's deportation policy pose 'nightmare' for law enforcement?

Patrik JonssonThe Christian Science Monitor

Sheriff Neil Warren, dubbed "Wild West Warren" by pro-immigration groups, has racked up nearly 15,000 immigration-related arrests in Cobb Country north of Atlanta. A new deportation policy announced Thursday by the Department of Homeland Security could mean that many of those arrested by Mr. Warren may not only get out of jail, but could go back to Cobb County with a legal work visa in hand.

Responding to criticism that the US deportation net has been cast too wide – sweeping up college kids, grandparents, and other noncriminal illegals – the Obama administration on Thursday formalized new rules that could mean release for many of the 300,000 people currently facing deportation in the US. Its goal will be to focus on deporting only the worst and most hardened criminals.

The move centers on prosecutorial discretion, with the Obama administration deciding whom it will and won't deport. Clearly, the shift has political ramifications, with Latino groups lauding the decision and conservative critics calling it a backdoor "administrative amnesty."

But perhaps more important to Main Street America is the question of how the new policy will affect police departments, primarily in the West and Southeast. Many of these departments have used federal programs as a means to arrest every illegal immigrant they come across. Now, the Department of Homeland Security's announcement introduces new uncertainty about whether many of those arrested will simply be sent back.

It is further proof that, until comprehensive immigration reform passes Congress, states and federal agencies will continue to nibble at the issue with different and often contradictory measures. In the meantime, the latest move makes for a "law enforcement nightmare," says the union that represents US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) personnel.

"We've got this massive net out there catching people, and there are a lot of inconsistencies in how programs are being implemented at the local level," says Wendy Sefsaf, a spokeswoman for the American Immigration Council, which advocates for comprehensive immigration reform. "How it will all play out is the huge million-dollar question, because so far the administration's goal of only deporting the worst of the worst hasn't worked out terribly well."

Immigration advocacy groups have lashed out at President Obama, who has deported record numbers of illegal immigrants. Several federal programs, including the Secure Communities database, have enabled local law enforcement to sweep up not just hardened criminals, but maids and college students without prior criminal records.

For his part, Mr. Obama has said he needed Congress to step up in order to make substantive changes to immigration law, noting at in a June speech that “I need a dance partner here – and the floor is empty.”

Thursday's announcement represents the White House's attempt to take matters into its own hands, to the degree it can. The new guidelines are a way to make sure that low-priority cases are kept "out of the deportation pipeline in the first place" so the Department of Homeland Security can focus on people with major criminal records and those who might pose a security risk, said Cecilia Munoz, the White House's director of intergovernmental affairs.

"I think it's definitely the broadest, strongest signal that the Obama administration has sent," says Ms. Sefsaf.

But while pro-immigration groups applauded, some law-enforcement groups grimaced. To be sure, some police have fought back against programs like Secure Communities, a fingerprint database that allows local law enforcement to find and report illegal immigrants, because it undermines working relationships with Hispanic communities. But even some who support broad-based immigration reform say the president's "band-aid" approach may do more harm than good.

"The president is sending out mixed messages to ICE agents, the border patrol, and to citizens," says Michael Wildes, a former prosecutor with the US Attorney's office in New York and now an immigration lawyer in Englewood, N.J. "Basically, it's telling law enforcement to go easy, and that's a bad message."

Others, however, suggest that the intersection between local law enforcement and immigration authorities has become increasingly complicated and could do with some clarification.

In that light, "I think it's important to see [the new deportation policy] not as a record-breaking announcement, but as a continuation of this administration's commitment to exercising discretion as part of a strategy of smart enforcement," says Laura Lichter, president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "I can't imagine there's a single agency who wouldn't rather be going after serious criminals than someone who is, frankly, not worthy of their attention."