Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas issued broad new directives to immigration officers on Thursday, stating that being an undocumented immigrant “should not alone be the basis” of a decision to detain and deport someone from the United States.
Mayorkas said in an interview that the Biden administration will continue to prioritize the arrest and deportation of immigrants who pose a threat to national security and public safety, as well as those who have recently crossed a border illegally into the United States.
Mayorkas stated that ICE agents should not attempt to arrest and deport farmworkers, the elderly, and others who were vulnerable to deportation under the Trump administration, which allowed agents to arrest anyone in the United States illegally. He also stated that agents should avoid detaining immigrants who are on their radar because they have spoken out against “unscrupulous” landlords or employers, or because they have participated in public demonstrations. The new rules go into effect on November 29.
However, the secretary gave ICE agents far more leeway in deciding whether to deport someone than officials did in the agency’s interim guidance issued on Feb. 18, which required supervisors to sign off on some deportation cases to make sure agents followed the rules.
Mayorkas said he would monitor data showing agents’ compliance with the guidelines but would not micromanage them.
Mayorkas issued the new instructions to immigration agents at a critical juncture for the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, the majority of whom have lived in the country for years, as well as the contentious federal agency in charge of enforcing immigration laws.
President Biden has promised to fight for a path to citizenship for them this year, but talks with Republicans have broken down amid a new influx of migrants at the southwest border, and the Senate has hit back-to-back roadblocks in its attempt to include a legalization process in the budget, with the Senate parliamentarian rejecting another proposal this week.
The Democratic Party’s left wing has called for the abolition of ICE, claiming that it is secretive and difficult to monitor. Hundreds of state and local jurisdictions are so wary of the agency that they have prohibited their police and jails from cooperating with them, claiming that they have sought to remove people who do not pose a threat, such as minivan-driving parents or relatives of people in the military.
Republicans have blasted ICE for a dramatic drop in immigration arrests this year, and they have filed lawsuits against the Biden administration, alleging that it has abdicated its responsibility to enforce federal immigration laws. The number of immigration arrests decreased from 6,000 in December to 3,600 in August, according to ICU data.
Republicans in Texas and other states have filed lawsuits seeking to overturn the agency’s enforcement priorities and compel the Biden administration to fully enforce civil immigration laws. A federal judge in Texas blocked ICE’s Feb. 18 priorities, calling them “suffocating,” in August, though an appeals court has since largely allowed them to take effect as the lawsuit moves forward.
Mayorkas stated that he wants to refocus ICE’s public safety mission by training agents in the use of “prosecutorial discretion,” which involves weighing pros and cons when deciding whether to detain and deport someone. He claimed that as a former U.S. attorney prosecuting crimes in Southern California, he used similar tactics, and that ICE’s workforce simply does not have the resources to deport all 11 million people.
The ICE guidelines issued on February 18 gave immigration officers more specific instructions on who to arrest and deport. The guidance effectively prohibited deporting immigrants unless they were violent gang members or aggravated felons.
In the new memo, Mayorkas, however, stated that “whether a noncitizen poses a current threat to public safety is not to be determined by bright lines or categories.”
Immigrant advocates have chastised the Biden administration for allowing detention levels to rise from around 15,000 to nearly 24,000 people per day, despite promising to limit detention. Mayorkas, on the other hand, claims that immigration arrests have changed. The vast majority of those detained have recently crossed the southwest border and are still deportable under the new rules. He also stated that the number of arrests of serious criminals has increased.