Jacobo Gabriel-Tomas was waiting in ­Dallas for a connecting flight back to Guatemala, convinced he had exhausted all options to avoid deportation. That’s when the Worthington father of five children born in the United States got a call from an immigration attorney urging him to return to Minnesota.

Two weeks later, President Obama signed an executive order that gives some immigrants facing imminent deportation hope for a last-minute reprieve. Parents of U.S. citizen children, like Gabriel-Tomas, will be able to apply for temporary permission to stay and work. New deportation priorities will sharpen the focus on serious crimes and national security threats, leaving out immigration offenses like Gabriel-Tomas’ decision to defy a deportation order 12 years ago.

But the new deportation guidelines are not as clear-cut as Obama’s “felons, not families” catchphrase. What’s more, day-to-day decisions will be up to field agents sworn to uphold immigration laws, some of whom have chafed at a recent push to scale back enforcement.

“There’s this constant tension between directives coming from Washington and the people on the ground implementing them,” said Virgil Wiebe, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas.

A shift was already underway before the president’s announcement.

After increasing markedly under Obama, deportations nationally dipped in the past couple of years. Removals coming from the Twin Cities field office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were down 40 percent in ­fiscal year 2013 over 2010, with a much larger share involving immigrants with criminal ­convictions.

As of November, 14,650 people were in the final stage of their deportation proceedings in the five states the Twin Cities office covers.

No longer an ICE priority?

In July 2013, a police officer pulled over Gabriel-Tomas in Worthington. After running his driver’s license, the officer put him on the phone with an ICE agent, who told him to come in for an appointment in Sioux Falls, S.D., the next day. When he showed up, he was detained for five weeks.

At first blush, Gabriel-Tomas did not seem to be a priority for deportation. He owns a modest home in Worthington. He lives with his wife, Isabel, and their four children, ages 6 to 13, who speak Spanish to their parents and unaccented English among themselves. (Gabriel-Tomas has one child from an earlier relationship.) For 10 years, he has worked on a hog farm, where he births and cares for piglets 10 hours a day, with two days off a month. He pays taxes.

“My life here in Worthington is excellent for me,” Gabriel-Tomas said.

But Gabriel-Tomas had that 12-year-old final deportation order, which at least until now, did make him a priority. He had crossed the border illegally as a teenager and applied for asylum, citing unrest in Guatemala. When his application and appeal failed years later, he decided to stay.

There was one other thing. After Gabriel-Tomas lost his asylum bid and temporary permission to work, a friend gave him a Social Security card as a favor, and he assumed an alias — a fairly common practice among immigrants living without legal status. Then police came looking for the card’s owner, a suspect in a car theft. They quickly realized Gabriel-Tomas was not the guy they wanted, but he was convicted of misdemeanor identity theft and forgery.

ICE first unveiled a list of priorities in 2011, saying they were needed because the agency’s resources enabled it to deport fewer than 4 percent of people in the country illegally. On the fast track for deportation: immigrants posing a risk to national security and public safety; those convicted of any crime, with a focus on felons and repeat offenders; gang members and recent border crossers; and those who violate deportation orders or return after being deported.

Starting in January, the focus narrows. Terrorism and espionage suspects, recent border crossers, gang members and felons will remain at the top of the list for deportation. Next are immigrants convicted of at least three misdemeanors or one “significant misdemeanor,” a contentious category that includes driving under the influence.

Experts like Wiebe see two key changes: Older immigration violations seem to be “off the table.” And, while under the old priorities any misdemeanor could count against an immigrant, the new guidelines include a more detailed list. Gabriel-Tomas’ identity theft offense is not on it.

Meanwhile, under Obama’s recent executive order, which congressional Republicans have vowed to block, parents of children who are U.S. citizens could apply for a deportation stay and a work permit if they have lived in the United States for at least five years.

ICE has said it is reviewing all pending deportation cases and already has released some immigrants from custody, particularly those who appear ­eligible for a reprieve under the new Obama programs. Local immigration attorneys say in recent months ICE has agreed to close the deportation cases of clients without criminal convictions — allowing them to stay in the country for now.

‘I did not want to hide’

On Nov. 5, Gabriel-Tomas went to the Twin Cities ICE office with an attorney he found with his church’s help; he’d been told to bring a plane ticket to Guatemala for that date. He learned a request to postpone his removal was denied.

From there, he and his wife headed to the airport, trying to decide what to do. He had not told his children that morning he might not come back.

He could not picture life back in Central America: “Guatemala is my country, but to me after 22 years, it’s a foreign country.” But the fear he could be detained and deported any day weighed too heavily on the family.

“I decided I did not want to hide anymore,” he said.

The family thought that if Obama announced a new deportation reprieve as he had promised, Gabriel-Tomas would be able to come back and apply. But after he boarded the plane, Isabel got a call from Kathy Klos of the St. Paul-based Immigrant Law Center, who had decided to take her husband’s case. Klos said Gabriel-Tomas could only take advantage of an executive order if he stayed. Meanwhile, the center would ask the national ICE office to review his case. Gabriel-Tomas took a Greyhound bus back home.

ICE agents protest priorities

Later that month, the family watched the president’s immigration announcement and rejoiced. But in December, Klos heard back from ICE: The agency would not grant Gabriel-Tomas a postponement.

Supporters of Obama’s action say it makes for more compassionate enforcement that frees up resources to deport criminals and beef up southern border security. But ever since the 2011 priority guidelines, the federal push to enforce immigration laws more selectively has also drawn criticism, both within and outside the ranks of ICE.

Chris Crane, the head of the national ICE officers’ union, has sharply criticized what he describes as pressure on agents to release immigrants, even when they have committed a crime or a serious immigration violation, such as returning after deportation, a federal felony. This fall, a veteran Arizona ICE official sued, claiming she was pressured to spare immigrants with felony identity theft convictions from deportation amid confusing, inconsistent directives.

Linda Huhn, a Minnesota member of Numbers USA, a national group advocating for limits on immigration, says she wants the president to crack down on employers who hire workers without legal status, not back off enforcing immigration laws she says protect U.S. workers and taxpayers: “If you reward people for ducking immigration enforcement, they will continue to do it.”

Experts such as University of Minnesota Prof. Linus Chan say the new guidelines are much clearer, but there’s still ambiguity. And they are just that — guidelines. They do not give any immigrant here illegally a right to avoid deportation.

Marc Prokosch, a Bloomington attorney, points to the case of a client who would no longer be a priority under the new guidelines. A native of Algeria, the client did not comply with a final deportation order a decade ago after an asylum bid failed. The man has three citizen children and no criminal record. He checks in with ICE every three months and, bracing for deportation, sold some furniture recently.

“Now, I feel guardedly optimistic,” said Prokosch. “But there are no guarantees.”

Meanwhile, Gabriel-Tomas and Klos are trying to understand what the changes will mean for him. He says the uncertainty has been tough.

“When you are an immigrant, you will never be happy,” said Gabriel-Tomas. “You’re always thinking about what happens tomorrow.”