Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers will focus on arresting immigrants accused of being national security or public safety threats, as well as people who were recently detained at the US-Mexico border, according to a memo intended to limit the broad policing scope of the agency.
Though the guidance does not prevent arrests, it marks a stark departure from Donald Trump’s administration, which gave the agency wide latitude to make arrests under a 2017 policy that effectively targeted all immigrants living in the US without legal permission.
The guidance effective on Thursday is likely to remain in place through May, when Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is expected to issue new directives.
National security risks are defined as individuals who “engaged in or [are] suspected of engaging in” terrorism or espionage.
Immigrants are considered a “public safety threat” if they have been convicted of a crime related to “participation in a criminal street gang” or have been convicted of an “aggravated felony” – a broad term that does not necessarily encompass “aggravated” crimes or felonies.
Officers instead must evaluate the “extensiveness, seriousness and recency” of a person’s criminal activity and make determinations based on personal and family circumstances, health, community ties and evidence of rehabilitation, and whether they have relief through immigration courts and other resources, according to the memo.
ICE officers will need to receive approval from their local field office directors before making an arrest for a person who does not meet that criteria.
The guidance also prohibits so-called “collateral” arrests, a widely condemned tactic that critics argued has relied on racial profiling to target people without criminal histories for “administrative” arrests in large-scale sweeps that have upended immigrant communities and families.
Officers are instructed to send weekly arrest reports to ICE and DHS to ensure “accountability” among agents and officers, according to DHS officials.
The new guidance will “allocate its resources in a way that best addresses the most pressing national security, border security and public safety threats,” DHS officials said on Thursday.
That criteria could impact whether immigrants who have been detained by ICE and who are not considered a threat under new guidance are eligible for release.
There are roughly 14,000 immigrants in detention centres across the US, according to the agency.
Immigrant advocacy groups have urged the administration to go further to reverse Trump-era directives.
Naureen Shah, senior advocacy and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the memo is “a disappointing step backward from the Biden administration’s earlier commitments to fully break from the harmful deportation policies” from his predecessor as well as Barack Obama.
ICE has been given “significant discretion to conduct operations that harm our communities and tear families apart,” she said, adding that the agency’s prioritisation of arrests relies on “sweeping and overbroad presumptions of threat that have for decades resulted in biased profiling and harmful immigration consequences for Black and Brown people, including Muslims.”
On Thursday, the president also formally unveiled his US Citizenship Act with members of Congress, proposing an eight-year path to citizenship for roughly 11 million immigrants in one of the largest pieces of immigration reform in decades.
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