As public health officials look for ways to slow down the spread of COVID-19, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced on Mar. 18 it will halt most arrests and deportations.
Instead, ICE says it will focus only on detaining undocumented immigrants who are “public safety risks” or those the agency describes as “subject to mandatory detention based on criminal grounds.”
ICE says health care facilities won’t be targeted
Undocumented immigrants live under constant fear of deportation and, as a result, many are afraid to seek medical care. Even into the early stages of the pandemic, state and local officials encouraged anyone needing medical care to seek treatment. However, ICE continued to make arrests, even in areas that were hard hit by COVID-19.
But ICE announced it is changing its enforcement measures, and agents will no longer carry out operations, “except in the most extraordinary of circumstances,” near hospitals, urgent care clinics, doctors’ offices and other health care facilities. The agency says people should not avoid seeking care because of fear over immigration enforcement.
Analyzing this change of direction
Immigration experts say ICE’s announcement was unexpected, but many remain cautious over what it will actually mean. Some say it sounds more reminiscent of the Obama-era “felons, not families” approach to immigration, marking a distinct shift from operations under the Trump administration.
Many are skeptical of how much will change. One issue is the vague language contained in the ICE statement of what constitutes a “public safety risk.” Some say that could include anyone with a misdemeanor conviction or even someone misidentified as a gang member.
Concerns remain over those already in detention
Despite a shift in policy potentially leading to fewer arrests, ICE did not mention how the 37,000 people currently being held in detention will be affected by COVID-19 measures. Doctors, former officials and immigration attorneys have urged the government to release immigrants from overcrowded facilities where the virus could spread quickly.
Immigration courts have canceled hearings for people who are not detained but remain open for cases involving immigrants in ICE custody. However, many are calling on the Justice Department to shutter courts entirely during the pandemic. If that happens, immigration experts are concerned not only for the health of detainees but also about their access to attorneys.