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Biden Administration Limits Power Of ICE To Arrest Immigrants In Courthouses

Protesters in Baltimore call for the abolition of ICE in 2019.
Tommy Gilligan
Protesters in Baltimore call for the abolition of ICE in 2019.

In another reversal of Trump administration immigration enforcement policy, the Department of Homeland Security announced Tuesday that federal agents would no longer be permitted to arrest people in or near courthouses for most immigration violations.

In a statement, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said such arrests interfered with the administration of justice and public safety. "The expansion of civil immigration arrests at courthouses during the prior administration had a chilling effect on individuals' willingness to come to court or work cooperatively with law enforcement," Mayorkas said.

The previous policy, formalized in 2018, authorized ICE to enter federal, state and local courthouses to arrest people who were there for reasons unrelated to their immigration status. Witnesses in trials, people seeking court protection from abusive partners and others pursuing mundane civil complaints were among persons seized by federal agents.

In one widely reported case in 2017, ICE agents arrested a woman in an El Paso, Texas, courthouse just after she had been granted a protective order against an allegedly abusive partner. A victim advocate who had accompanied her to the court appearance said one ICE agent was inside the protective-order courtroom, two more were guarding each exit door and other agents were staking out the 10th floor of the courthouse building.

The directive applies to agents of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which both fall within DHS. According to DHS, arrests in or near courthouses will only be permitted if "(1) it involves a national security matter, (2) there is an imminent risk of death, violence, or physical harm to any person, (3) it involves hot pursuit of an individual who poses a threat to public safety, or (4) there is an imminent risk of destruction of evidence material to a criminal case.

The Biden administration is reorienting how the government enforces immigration violations. Like the Trump administration, it is focusing on those who present a threat to public safety, but in a major change has largely stopped indiscriminate arrests of anyone in the country illegally.

The policy change came on the day President Biden nominated a vocal critic of Trump immigration policy to be director of ICE: Harris County, Texas, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez. As sheriff of Harris County, which includes Houston, Gonzalez ended a program with ICE which trained sheriff's deputies to screen detainees for their immigration status.

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Mark Katkov