WASHINGTON AND LOS ANGELES — Stepping into the political minefield of immigration reform, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano soon will direct federal agents to focus more on arresting and prosecuting American employers than the illegal laborers who sneak into the country to work for them, department officials said Monday.
The shift in emphasis will be outlined in revamped field guidelines issued to agents of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, as early as this week, several officials familiar with the change said.
The policy is in line with comments that President Obama made during last year's campaign, when he said enforcement efforts had failed because they focused on illegal immigrants rather than on the companies that hired them.
"There is a supply side and a demand side," one Homeland Security official said. "Like other law enforcement philosophies, there is a belief that by focusing more on the demand side, you cut off the supply."
Another department official said the changes were the result of a broad review of all immigration and border security programs and policies that Napolitano began in her first days in office.
"She is focused on using our limited resources to the greatest effect, targeting criminal aliens and employers that flout our laws and deliberately cultivate an illegal workforce," the official said.
Homeland Security officials emphasized that the department would not stop conducting sweeps of businesses while more structural changes to U.S. immigration law and policy were being contemplated.
Agents, however, will be held to a higher standard of probable cause for conducting raids, the officials said, out of concern that at least one recent raid in Washington state and another planned sweep in Chicago were based on speculative information that illegal workers were employed.
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the coming policy changes.
The new guidelines would mark a fundamental shift away from what was happening at the end of the Bush administration, said Doris Meissner, who served as commissioner of ICE's predecessor -- the Immigration and Naturalization Service -- under President Clinton.
The law governing employer enforcement requires proof that a business knowingly hired illegal workers. So without an effective way for employers to verify workers' status, Meissner said, "It is very easy for that 'knowingly' to be a big loophole."
Meissner, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute think tank in Washington, said the Bush administration also vowed to go after employers but rarely did so. In later years, it drew criticism by conducting large-scale raids at businesses across the country aimed almost entirely at workers.
The Clinton administration, in contrast, used a combination of laws to go after employers for smuggling, violating labor laws and engaging in criminal conspiracy, she said. "At the end of the day, when you make cases like that, you have more impact."
Advocates on both sides of the issue have been awaiting major changes in immigration policy since Obama's election -- particularly since he tapped Napolitano, a former border state governor and prosecutor, to head the Homeland Security Department.
Conservatives have warned that any easing of enforcement efforts will result in more arrivals of illegal workers, who will compete for jobs held by Americans.
And immigrant rights groups have complained that the lack of reform measures to date under Obama suggested the White House was backing down from campaign pledges to curb workplace enforcement efforts.
Those concerns ratcheted up dramatically when ICE agents swept into a manufacturing plant in Bellingham, Wash., in February and arrested dozens of people on suspicion that they were in the country illegally.
Napolitano suggested to Congress that she was unhappy with the raid and that she would "get to the bottom of this." But, she added: "In my view, we have to do workplace enforcement. It needs to be focused on employers who intentionally and knowingly exploit the illegal labor market."
Homeland Security officials confirmed that a planned raid in the Chicago area was delayed in recent weeks because senior administrators expected "a higher level of scrutiny to be applied," one official said. "Politics has nothing to do with it. It is all about the quality of the investigative work and the effectiveness of targeting the employers."
Michael W. Cutler, a retired senior special INS agent, said the Obama administration needed to go after workers and employers to send a message that it would not condone illegal immigration.
"Who is more responsible for prostitution, the hookers or the johns? It is a shared responsibility," said Cutler, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, a group opposed to illegal immigration.
He said it would be "dumb" to "go after employers and not the illegal aliens. That means they are going to make very few arrests. And the message that sends is that if you can make it across the border, you're home free. No one is going to be looking for you."
Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said the Obama administration also needed to target employers who did not pay minimum wage and who exposed workers to unsafe conditions. But she said she hoped the new guidelines would mark a good first step by halting mass raids.
"What happened during the Bush administration is unconscionable," she said. "At the end of the day, it really targeted a group of vulnerable workers who just were trying to bring the food to the table."
Antonio Olivo of the Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.