U.S. immigration authorities will temporarily halt enforcement across the U.S., except for deporting foreign nationals who have committed crimes or who pose a threat to public safety. The change amid the coronavirus outbreak aims to limit the spread of the virus and to encourage those who need treatment to seek medical help, the Washington Post reports. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said late Wednesday that its Enforcement and Removal Operations division will “delay enforcement actions” and use “alternatives to detention” amid the outbreak. ICE told Congress its “highest priorities are to promote lifesaving and public safety activities.” The agency said, “Individuals should not avoid seeking medical care because they fear civil immigration enforcement.”
The agency did not immediately respond to questions about how many of the 37,000 detainees it has in custody will remain there. Nearly 20,000 in ICE custody have some sort of criminal history, but it remained unclear how many of those people have serious criminal violations in their past. As of Tuesday, there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in ICE detention facilities. The agency had suspended visits to detainees and taken other steps to prevent the spread of the disease. Advocates for immigrants had filed at least one lawsuit and had asked officials to release the detainees, saying they were at risk of infection because they were being held in close quarters. Detainees in such facilities are mostly adults, but the detainee population also can include the elderly and families with children. The new priorities are similar to the Obama administration’s “felons, not families,” approach to immigration enforcement, which sought to spare immigrants from deportation if they did not have serious criminal offenses and had deep roots in their communities.