WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration has begun a profound shift in its enforcement of the nation's immigration laws, aiming to hasten the integration of long-term immigrants here illegally into society, rather than targeting them for deportation, according to documents and federal officials.
In recent months, the Department of Homeland Security has taken steps to ensure that the majority of America's 11.3 million immigrants without legal documents can stay in this country, with agents narrowing enforcement efforts to three groups of immigrants here illegally: convicted criminals, terrorism threats or those who recently crossed the border.
While public attention has been focused on the court fight over President Barack Obama's highly publicized executive action on immigration, DHS has with little fanfare been training thousands of immigration agents to carry out new policies on everyday enforcement.
The battle centers on the constitutionality of a program that would officially shield up to 5 million eligible immigrants here illegally from deportation, mainly parents of children who are U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents. A federal judge put the program, known by the acronym DAPA, on hold in February after 26 states sued.
But the shift in DHS' enforcement priorities, which are separate from the DAPA program and have not been challenged in court, could prove even more far-reaching.
The new policies direct agents to focus on the three priority groups and leave virtually everyone else alone. Demographic data show that the typical immigrant without legal documents has lived in the United States for a decade or more and has established strong community ties.
While the new measures do not grant such immigrants a path to citizenship, their day-to-day lives could be changed in countless ways. Now, for instance, those without legal documents say they are so afraid to interact with police, for fear of being deported, that they won't report crimes and often limit their driving to avoid possible traffic stops. The new policies, if carried out on the ground, could dispel such fears.
In describing the initiatives, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has echoed the language often used by advocates of comprehensive immigration reform, which remains stalled.
"We are making it clear that we should not expend our limited resources on deporting those who have been here for years, have committed no serious crimes, and have, in effect, become integrated members of our society," Johnson said in a recent speech in Houston.
America's massive dragnet is shrinking rapidly both because of the new enforcement policies and declining flows of new immigrants crossing the southwest border, DHS officials say.