ICE Announces Narrower Priorities for Immigration Enforcement, Deportation

February 18, 2021 Updated: February 18, 2021

WASHINGTON—Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials announced new interim guidelines on Feb. 18 for handling the arrest, detainment, and deportation of illegal immigrants.

DHS said the three priority criteria—national security, border security, and public safety—outlined in the interim guidelines are effective immediately for all Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) actions.

Any ICE agent who encounters an illegal immigrant who falls outside of the three categories must get pre-approval from their field office before taking any action.

The first category, national security, includes illegal immigrants who “have engaged in or are suspected of engaging in terrorism or espionage, or if their apprehension, arrest, or custody is otherwise necessary to protect the national security of the United States,” according to a DHS official on a background media call on Feb. 18.

“We are requiring officers and agents to determine whether a noncitizen poses a threat to United States sovereignty, territorial integrity, national interests, or institutions.”

The DHS on Jan. 21 issued a memo to suspend deportations of illegal aliens for 100 days, with the exception of those who have “either engaged in or are suspected of terrorism or espionage.”

The second category, border security, puts illegal immigrants who entered the country after Nov. 1, 2020, as an enforcement and removal priority.

The third category, public safety, includes illegal immigrants who “pose a threat to public safety and they’ve been convicted of an aggravated felony as that is defined in statute, or if they’ve been convicted of an offense for which an element was active participation in a criminal street gang,” a DHS official said.

Previously, ICE had also placed a priority on illegal aliens who had pending charges.

DHS officials said the guidelines don’t exempt anyone who is in the United States illegally, however, ICE agents must seek pre-approval from their leadership first and consideration must be given to the following criteria: The nature and recency of a non-citizen’s convictions, the type and length of sentences imposed, whether the enforcement action is otherwise an appropriate use of ICE’s limited resources, and other relevant factors, including mitigating factors, a DHS official said.

The mitigating factors, the official said, include consideration as to whether “someone might be suffering from serious physical or mental illness. We want them [ICE] to think about ties to the community, whether the individual has family here in the United States, U.S. citizen family members, and other considerations.”

The official said the new guidelines are to help ICE focus its limited resources on “cases that the public cares about.”

The official said ICE arrests aren’t expected to drop under the new guidelines.

“It’s just a question to us of reallocating resources to the cases that really, truly matter.”

In fiscal 2020, ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations removed almost 186,000 individuals, of whom 92 percent had criminal convictions or pending criminal charges, according to ICE’s end-of-year report. ICE also conducted more than 103,000 interior arrests—just under 30 percent fewer than in fiscal 2019, due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Approximately 90 percent of those arrested had a criminal conviction or charge, according to the report. Those arrested included aliens with criminal charges or convictions for 1,837 homicide offenses, 37,247 assault offenses, and 10,302 sexual assault or sex offenses.

The new guidelines place priority on those who have been convicted of an aggravated felony, not those with pending charges.

The department expects the interim guidelines to be superseded by agencywide guidelines in about 90 days.

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