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Nation & World

Biden Tries To Rein In ICE: New Rules Limit Who Immigration Agents Target for Arrest

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer looks on during an operation in Escondido, Calif., in 2019. The Biden administration today announced new guidelines that are expected to sharply limit arrests and deportations carried out by ICE.
A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer looks on during an operation in Escondido, Calif., in 2019. The Biden administration today announced new guidelines that are expected to sharply limit arrests and deportations carried out by ICE.

After four years of former President Trump's immigration crackdown, the Biden administration on Thursday announced new guidelines that are expected to sharply limit arrests and deportations carried out by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Under the guidance, ICE agents and officers have been told to prioritize the "most pressing threats" to national security and public safety when deciding whom to arrest, detain and deport.

ICE officials said the guidance is intended to help the agency allocate its limited resources to cases the public cares about most.

"By focusing our limited resources on cases that present threats to national security, border security, and public safety, our agency will more ably and effectively execute its law enforcement mission," ICE Acting Director Tae Johnson said in a statement. "Like every law enforcement agency at the local, state, and federal level, we must prioritize our efforts to achieve the greatest security and safety impact.

The guidance is part of a broader effort by President Biden to roll back the previous administration's hardline immigration policies. Also today, Congressional Democrats unveiled an immigration bill a plan that President Biden had proposed on his first day in office.

The bill would include a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States and a fast-track process for young "Dreamer" immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. The bill faces steep hurdles in a divided Congress.

Similarly, changes at Immigration and Customs Enforcement face pushback. Immigration hawks complain that the new guidance will prevent ICE agents and officers from doing their jobs — in essence, abolishing ICE without actually abolishing it.

"The men and women of ICE, they took an oath to enforce immigration laws," said Thomas Homan, who served as acting ICE director under former President Trump. "It's unfortunate they can't do the job. ... And it's unfortunate that many criminals are going to be walking the streets of America because this administration simply thinks they're not important enough to take off the streets."

The new guidance directs ICE agents and officers to focus on non-citizens who recently crossed the border illegally or who are deemed to be threats to national security or public safety. The guidance defines a public safety threat as someone who has been convicted of an aggravated felony, such as murder and rape, or of actively participating in a criminal street gang.

Field officers have been instructed to seek pre-approval from supervisors before making arrests of non-citizens convicted of other crimes, such as minor drug offenses, immigration offenses, and driving under the influence.

In practice, that means ICE arrests would be limited largely to immigrants who have been convicted of felony offenses and are already detained in federal or state prisons.

It's not unusual for enforcement priorities at ICE to change from administration to administration. But immigration hardliners argue that these guidelines are the most restrictive yet, exceeding the limits imposed on ICE by the Obama administration.

"Obama-era policies... set a dangerous precedent for the non-enforcement of the immigration laws of the United States in the name of prioritizing scarce ICE resources," said Andrew Arthur, a former immigration judge who is now at the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit in Washington that advocates for lower levels of immigration.

The Biden administration's plan is "much, much worse," Arthur wrote in a blog post.

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