Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Homeland Security agency that arrests and deports unauthorized immigrants, announced it would only target individuals who present public safety risks or who have criminal records.
For all other undocumented people, ICE “will exercise discretion to delay enforcement actions until after the crisis or utilize alternatives to detention, as appropriate,” the agency said in a press statement late Wednesday, noting it was making this change for public safety reasons amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
ICE also said agents would not carry out enforcement operations at or near hospitals, doctors' offices or other health care facilities, "except in the most extraordinary of circumstances."
"Individuals should not avoid seeking medical care because they fear civil immigration enforcement," it said.
On Thursday, Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary of Homeland Security, walked back the change in a series of tweets, saying they do “not mean that no other removable aliens will in fact be removed, but during the current public health situation, removals will be done in such a way as to minimize the exposure of our agents and of the removable aliens we are encountering.”
The announcement by ICE was the latest in a series of measures immigration agencies have taken to restrict activities, following criticism that they had dragged their feet and potentially endangered public safety.
The new enforcement priorities took effect Wednesday and harken back to ICE’s posture during the second half of the Obama administration, when it prioritized the deportation of “felons, not families,” as President Barack Obama put it in 2014. His administration also encouraged ICE lawyers to exercise prosecutorial discretion in cases.
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., who chairs the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, said she had expressed concerns to ICE officials about how unrestrained enforcement actions may deter immigrants from seeking medical care.
"Our government should never, ever force anyone, including immigrants, to put their lives, or the lives of their loved ones or neighbors, at risk by avoiding medical care,” Roybal-Allard said in a statement Wednesday. “In conversations with ICE officials today, I alerted them to the dangers of enforcement efforts at sensitive locations like health care facilities, and they have started to address these concerns by issuing the directive."
In 2015, the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, calculated that if implemented strictly, enforcement policies only targeting people with criminal backgrounds, as the Obama administration had outlined, would spell some degree of relief for around 87 percent of the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.
While some advocacy groups said ICE’s latest move did not go far enough, the American Civil Liberties Union praised the agency for taking the step.
“Earlier this month, more than 800 public health and legal experts noted the importance of the government confirming that health care facilities would be ‘immigration enforcement-free zones’ given COVID-19,” Andrea Flores, deputy director of the ACLU's equality division, said in a statement. “Now, as the pandemic sweeps our nation, ICE is moving in the right direction by curbing enforcement and using alternatives to detention.”
“These directives are an important step towards allowing families and communities to seek help and medical care without the threat of deportation and family separation,” she added.
Earlier this week, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services closed its offices, immigration courts scaled back hearings, and ICE canceled its in-person “check-ins” with undocumented immigrants.