Setback for reform advocates comes as the US is facing a new migrant crisis at the southern border with Mexico.
United States immigration authorities have moved to limit arrests at an array of “protected areas” – including schools, hospitals, playgrounds, and COVID-19 vaccination centres.
The guidelines, issued on Wednesday by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), directed agents to avoid making arrests or carrying out searches at a range of sensitive locations “to the fullest extent possible,” according to a memo from DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas outlining the policy.
The list is longer than similar guidelines issued under former President Barack Obama and is the most recent reversal of the immigration policies of former President Donald Trump, particularly regarding interior immigration enforcement.
Under Trump, who ran on a hardline immigration platform, authorities widely went after undocumented immigrants for deportation, eschewing Obama-era policies of not singling out those who had longstanding community ties and had not committed serious crimes.
While the Trump administration did maintain a policy of avoiding enforcement in some sensitive areas, notably churches, its policies and harsh rhetoric had a chilling effect within undocumented communities, with many migrants avoiding participation in daily life for fear of being deported.
The approach sparked a backlash from across the US, prompting a collection of jurisdictions and some institutions to declare themselves “sanctuaries” for the undocumented. That in turn prompted lawsuits seeking to compel local authorities to coordinate with federal immigration agents.
‘Without denying individuals access’
Wednesday’s guidelines underscore what has become a two-pronged approach to undocumented immigrants under the Biden administration, which has promised a more “humane” overall immigration strategy than his predecessor.
Biden has maintained, or only slightly altered, several of the controversial policies of the Trump administration towards new migrants and asylum seekers crossing the US southern border with Mexico, prompting condemnation from advocates.
Meanwhile, his administration has sought to take a more focused approach to enforcement within the country, offering some comfort to the millions of people who have lived in the US without documentation for decades.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) data recently showed that immigration arrests in the interior of the US dropped to the lowest in more than 10 years during the 2021 fiscal year. Meanwhile, arrests along the US-Mexico border reached an all-time high during the same period, amid a surge in attempted crossings.
Last month, Mayorkas issued a directive saying that a person’s undocumented status “should not alone be the basis” to detain and deport them. He also instructed agents to prioritise those who had recently crossed into the US or who were seen to pose a national security threat.
Last week, he announced a suspension of work-site raids, which advocates say can have a devastating effect on an undocumented individual’s ability to support themselves or their family.
Those moves come as efforts by Democrats to create a path to citizenship have stalled in Congress.
The policy unveiled on Wednesday, which also seeks to preclude enforcement at homeless and domestic violence shelters, food pantries, drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres, protests and gatherings like parades, is all-but-assured to provide more fodder to Biden’s critics, who say his approach is encouraging more people to attempt to gain access to the US.
Mayorkas has argued that his agency does not have the resources to pursue all of the estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the country and that it should focus on those who pose the greatest risk to society.
“We can accomplish our law enforcement mission without denying individuals access to needed medical care, children access to their schools, the displaced access to food and shelter, people of faith access to their places of worship, and more,” Mayorkas said in Wednesday’s memo.