The Biden administration on Wednesday issued new guidance instructing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to refrain from detaining and deporting immigrants who were victims of crimes, barring extraordinary circumstances.
By minimizing the "chilling effect" of potential deportation, interim ICE Director Tae Johnson said in a memo to agents, the policy change can encourage immigrants living in the U.S. without legal permission to contact law enforcement and assist investigations.
"When victims have access to humanitarian protection, regardless of their immigration status, and can feel safe in coming forward, it strengthens the ability of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, including ICE, to detect, investigate, and prosecute crimes," Johnson wrote in his memo.
The guidance directs ICE agents to use discretion in cases that involve immigrants who have been granted or are applying for an immigration benefit designed to protect victims of crimes like trafficking and domestic abuse.
Under the new policy, deportation officers should also consider not arresting or releasing immigrants who are found to have been victims of crime, even if they don't have a pending immigration application.
Absent "exceptional" cases, ICE agents need to request permission from top agency officials to apprehend victims or witnesses of crimes who are part of ongoing law enforcement investigations or prosecutions, Wednesday's directive said.
"This policy update facilitates victim cooperation with law enforcement, enhances ICE's criminal investigative efforts, and promotes trust in ICE agents and officers enforcing our laws," Johnson said in a statement. "It is ICE's commitment to assist victims of crime regardless of their immigration status."
Under U.S. law, immigrants can seek to stay in the country legally by applying for several victims-based benefits, including U visas for victims of serious crimes who assisted law enforcement, T visas for trafficking victims, VAWA petitions for those who suffered domestic abuse and Special Immigrant Juvenile Status for children who were neglected, abandoned or abused by their parents.
ICE arrests and detains undocumented immigrants, recent border-crossers, asylum-seekers, green card and visa holders who are convicted of certain crimes and other noncitizens whom the U.S. government seeks to deport because of immigration violations.
As of last week, ICE was holding more than 25,000 immigrants in its sprawling network of detention facilities, many of which are operated by for-profit companies or county officials.
Wednesday's memo is part of a broader Biden administration campaign to curtail ICE deportations from the interior of the country and narrow whom agents should prioritize for arrest.
In February, JohnsonICE agents to focus on arresting recent border-crossers and those deemed to pose a national security or public safety threat, requiring officers to seek supervisory approval before detaining other immigrants.
ICE officers were alsoin June to generally avoid detaining pregnant or nursing women.
Biden administration officials have argued that the restrictions on ICE arrests allow the agency to focus its limited resources on detaining noncitizens with serious criminal convictions, while sparing undocumented immigrants without criminal records who have lived in the U.S. for years.
Republicans, meanwhile, have suggested that the policy changes encourage migrants to come to the U.S. and stay in the country illegally.
When pressed during a Senate hearing last month about concerns that ICE agents are not being allowed to arrest some immigrants with criminal histories, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas touted an operation that led to the arrest of 300 sex offenders.
"That is in fact a public safety threat that we do address aggressively," Mayorkas said.