Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton plans to start releasing undocumented immigrants brought to his jails for low-level crimes before immigration officials can get their hands on them.

The move is a reversal of Staton's previous support of a controversial practice whereby U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement orders local jails to hold undocumented immigrants for deportation, no matter how small their alleged crimes.

But since 2010, Staton has faced growing pressure from the immigration rights community and, more recently, from the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, to reject the demands of the immigration agency, known as ICE.

Under the Secure Communities program—started in 2008 but continued by the Obama administration—jail officials run fingerprint checks through the FBI to identify undocumented immigrants as they are booked into jails. ICE then requests that local authorities hold the inmates for up to two business days until they can be transferred to federal custody.

Documents obtained by WW show Staton has agreed to deny ICE access to inmates brought to the jail for nonviolent misdemeanors. 

"People who have been living in this community for many years are pulled over for something minor like driving without a license," Multnomah County Chairman Jeff Cogen tells WW. "They're getting deported and families are being separated. To me, that's not justice."

Staton—who has defended his stance on the ICE program until now—declined to be interviewed by WW.

As an elected official, the sheriff doesn't answer to the county board.

But Cogen and the other four commissioners control the sheriff's budget and have been echoing community opposition to the ICE program for months.

"These modifications will assist in addressing the concerns and requests for changes that have been brought to the sheriff," Staton said in a statement to WW.

Staton said the change will "help minimize impacts, and continue to ensure the safety of the citizens of Multnomah County during budgetary struggles facing public safety."

The county board is scheduled to vote to support the policy April 4.

In 2012, Multnomah County jail officials identified 1,158 inmates as ICE holds—or about 3.1 percent of the jail's population. Some of those holds occupied jail beds while inmates accused of felonies were let out due to overcrowding.

County records show the jail was forced to give early release to 916 inmates last year. In most months when that happened, the jail had an equal or greater number of ICE holds than the prisoners it let go.

"It's clear that ICE holds are one of several factors affecting capacity in the jail," Cogen says. "The sheriff needs the flexibility to jail the people he believes are the biggest risk to public safety.” 

Nationally, the program has drawn fire for upending the lives of undocumented immigrants who have been charged with minor crimes—or no crimes at all.

Take the case of Miguel Cabrera Cruz, a longtime Portland resident.

On Oct. 14, 2011, Cabrera, a day laborer, accused an employer of failing to pay him and jumped into the bed of the man's pickup. The man called police, who charged Cabrera with trespassing and disorderly conduct—misdemeanor charges later reduced to noncriminal violations.

Cabrera was held in the Multnomah County Jail until Oct. 19, when he was taken into ICE custody and held in the federal agency's Tacoma, Wash., detention facility. He was later released.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon filed suit against the county and sheriff's office in September 2012, arguing that Staton violated a state law that prohibits local police from enforcing federal immigration law if the detainee is not involved in criminal activity. No hearing date has been set for the case.

"We're optimistic [the new policies] are a step forward," says Becky Straus, legislative director of the ACLU of Oregon. "But the position in our case is that detainers are not mandatory, and in Oregon, unless the detainer is accompanied by a warrant, as is required under state law, then the detainer is illegal."

Cogen says he would prefer to see Staton reject all ICE holds, but the "sheriff didn't feel comfortable with that." Cogen called the new plan, which is still being ironed out, "better than the status quo."

ICE maintains that local law enforcement "shall" honor its detention requests to hold undocumented immigrants—a position that's led many local governments to believe their cooperation is required. 

But other jurisdictions have started refusing, including New York City; Cook County, Ill., which includes Chicago; and California's Santa Clara and Los Angeles counties. None has faced a court test from the federal government.

In a draft county resolution obtained by WW, Staton will hold inmates for ICE only if they are suspected undocumented immigrants charged with felonies or Class A misdemeanors involving violent crimes.

The sheriff will also honor holds if the feds present an affidavit showing the inmate has been previously convicted of a felony or more than two misdemeanors, or if the inmate has a prior misdemeanor conviction for or is currently charged with a violent crime, sex abuse, driving under the influence of intoxicants, possession of a weapon, or drug dealing.

Francisco Lopez, executive director of the statewide immigration rights group Causa Oregon, calls the plan a "good compromise."

He says it may help repair the damage caused by Staton's slow action on the ICE program, and by his decision to send Undersheriff Tim Moore to training last fall sponsored by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which is classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“I’m glad the sheriff has responded to the outcry that was put in front of him,” Lopez says.