The Biden administration issued guidance on Aug. 11 instructing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to refrain from arresting and deporting illegal immigrants who were victims of crimes and those who are applying for victim-based immigration benefits.
Described as a “victim-centered approach” to enforcement, the new policy will see ICE agents cease taking action against illegal immigrants who have applied for visas specifically offered to victims of human trafficking, domestic violence, child neglect, or abuse, according to the guidance (pdf) issued by Acting ICE Director Tae Johnson.
T-visas are designated for victims of human trafficking, and U-visas are meant for victims of violent crimes in the United States.
The memo to ICE agents states that the goal of a victim-centered investigation and prosecution is to focus on minimizing any undue stress, harm, and trauma to the victim.
“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.
The approach also seeks to minimize the “chilling effect” of potential deportation, and therefore encourage illegal immigrants to cooperate with law enforcement.
“A victim-centered approach encourages victim cooperation with law enforcement, engenders trust in ICE agents and officers, and bolsters faith in the entire criminal justice and civil immigration systems,” Johnson wrote.
ICE agents should also refrain from detaining or deporting illegal immigrants who were victims of crime, even if they have not applied for victim-based immigration benefits, the memo states.
“The fact that someone is a victim of crime and, where applicable, may be eligible for victim-based immigration benefits for which they have not yet applied, is a discretionary factor that must be considered in deciding whether to take civil immigration enforcement action against the noncitizen or to exercise discretion, including but not limited to release from detention,” the guidance says.
Further, ICE agents and officers also must look for evidence while carrying out their duties that suggests an illegal immigrant is a crime victim.
Johnson added in a statement that the policy update facilitates victim cooperation with law enforcement, enhances ICE’s criminal investigative efforts, and promotes trust in ICE agents and law enforcement officers.
“It is ICE’s commitment to assist victims of crime regardless of their immigration status,” he said.
However, ICE is still authorized to take action against victims of crime in “exceptional circumstances,” including if an individual could physically endanger somebody else or is deemed a threat to national security.
In June, the Biden administration dismantled a Trump-era government office to help victims of crimes committed by illegal immigrants, and replaced it with an “inclusive support system for all victims, regardless of immigration status or the immigration status of the perpetrator.”
ICE launched the Victims Engagement and Services Line on June 11, noting in a statement that the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) Office that then-President Donald Trump established in 2017 “is terminated.”
Johnson said at the time that people who contact the new office for help won’t be asked about their immigration status.
Republicans have argued that Trump’s policies and messaging were effective at discouraging illegal immigration, and that the Biden administration’s rollback of some of them has led to a record-high surge in the number of people crossing the southern border illegally.
Besides repealing some Trump-era immigration policies, the Biden administration has also sought to change its use of language. In April, the Biden administration ordered ICE and CBP to stop using terms such as “illegal alien” and instead use the phrase “undocumented noncitizen.”
Biden proposed removing the term “alien” from federal immigration laws in a citizenship bill he sent to Congress on Jan. 20, his first day as president, according to the White House.
Tom Ozimek contributed to this report.