On the first day of Joe Biden’s presidency, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security issued a memo to change immigration enforcement priorities and limit the number of people U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would target and detain. The same day, Biden issued an executive order declaring a partial moratorium on deportations. Both the new immigration enforcement priorities, which have been sporadically upheld by ICE, and the deportation moratorium, which was swiftly blocked after Texas sued the federal government, have become examples of the new administration’s promises falling short.
Over the administration’s first 100 days, lofty campaign rhetoric and policies in line with a more progressive immigration agenda have met the deflating reality of agencies — both ICE and Customs and Border Protection — that are geared toward the indiscriminate targeting and deportation of noncitizens. Operating in the shadows of U.S. cities, the far reaches of the desert, and often overlooked border stations, ICE and CBP have acted in a manner out of accord with directives handed down by the executive branch.
“It is deeply concerning but not surprising that, under the Biden administration, ICE continues to flout the administration’s orders.”
“Since its inception, ICE has operated with impunity and without proper oversight,” said Christina Fialho, co-founder and executive director of Freedom for Immigrants, which recently released a new report about the administration’s priorities and ICE’s enforcement. “It is deeply concerning but not surprising that, under the Biden administration, ICE continues to flout the administration’s orders and the president has done little to rein in his agency.”
The Freedom for Immigrants report details how ICE has not been following its own policies, leaving people locked in detention centers where they are subject to abuse, miserable conditions, solitary confinement, and paltry protections from an epidemic that has disproportionately ravaged immigrant communities and detention centers.
Though the Biden administration bears ultimate responsibility for its immigration record, and advocates have raised issues with its policies, the continued detention by ICE of people outside the designated priorities is not for lack of directives from executive appointees.
On February 18, Acting ICE Director Tae Johnson issued a memo elaborating a January 20 executive order tasking federal immigration agencies with further review of enforcement priorities. The February order reiterated that ICE focus on arresting and detaining people who pose national security, border security, and public safety threats. It also authorized the release from custody of noncitizens who have deep family and community ties, medical needs, and available immigration relief as well as those who have shown evidence of rehabilitation.
When considering past crimes, according to the memo, “the seriousness and recency of such convictions” should be mitigating factors. At the same time, the February memo granted ICE agents broader leeway in arresting and detaining people who fall outside the priorities.
Taken together, the memos by executive appointees prioritize arresting people who had entered the country after November 20, 2020 — an attempt to discourage an ongoing increase in immigration that has been a public relations calamity for the new administration. Yet about 70 percent of the people surveyed in the Freedom for Immigrants report were detained before last November. Those individuals, the report notes, had been detained under the Trump administration, which “had expansive and all-encompassing priorities that placed a target on the backs of all immigrants.”
Immigration attorney Andrew Free said, “If ICE really cannot act responsively to the political will of the American voters, what is the state of the ‘Homeland’ whose security it supposedly protects?”