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Breaking down the Biden administration's new immigration enforcement guidelines


The Biden administration has new guidelines for ICE, the federal immigration enforcement agency. Their focus - prioritizing the most urgent threats to public safety - that according to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: We have guided our workforce to exercise its discretion to focus on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security.

MARTÍNEZ: But the latest rules have been widely criticized.

NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration. He spoke to Secretary Mayorkas yesterday. Joel, what do the new rules say?

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Well, under this new guidance, being undocumented, quote, "should not alone be the basis," unquote, for officers at Immigration and Customs Enforcement to arrest or remove someone. Agents are told to focus on immigrants who are considered a serious threat to public safety or national security or those immigrants who just recently crossed the border. And these guidelines also spell out some factors that should make someone less of a target to be arrested or deported. And that list includes being very young or very old - also, immigrants who speak out against, quote, "unscrupulous landlords or employers or at public demonstrations."

MARTÍNEZ: Did Mayorkas say what motivated him to issue the new guidance?

ROSE: Well, the reality is that immigration authorities cannot realistically detain or remove everyone who is in the country illegally. So every administration has to make choices. And under the Trump administration, ICE agents were free to arrest anybody they encountered who was in the country without authorization. And the new guidance from Secretary Mayorkas is a big move away from that Trump policy. Let's listen to this clip from Mayorkas.

MAYORKAS: The majority of undocumented individuals have contributed so significantly to our communities across the country for years. They include individuals who have worked on the front lines in the battle against COVID, teach our children, do the backbreaking farm work to help deliver food to our table.

ROSE: That is a big shift in tone away from former President Trump, who often talked and still talks about immigrants as a danger and a threat. The Biden administration has tried to put some distance between itself and those policies and that rhetoric.

MARTÍNEZ: So what's been the reaction so far?

ROSE: Well, Republicans and immigration hard-liners do not like this guidance. They say the Biden administration is preventing ICE officers from doing their jobs. But some immigrant advocates are also critical because compared to the interim guidance the Biden administration put out in February, this gives more discretion to individual ICE officers. The advocates are worried that that is a recipe for abuse by officers who want to, you know, enforce the law to the max.

MARTÍNEZ: What did Secretary Mayorkas respond to that?

ROSE: He pushed back on those concerns. He said ICE officers should look at a wide range of factors when deciding, you know, how to enforce the law and that DHS would put safeguards in place to make sure they do.

MAYORKAS: Yes. It leaves discretion in the hands of the agents. But that discretion is guided. It is supervised. It is overseen. We will hold ourselves accountable internally. And we will hold ourselves accountable to the public externally.

MARTÍNEZ: Secretary Mayorkas is also responsible for border enforcement. And he's been using a public health order designed by the Trump administration to quickly expel migrant families.

Joel, that order has been under legal attack from immigrant advocates. What's the latest there?

ROSE: Right. This is a public health order known as Title 42 that was first put in place by the Trump administration way back at the beginning of the pandemic. And, as you say, it allows immigration authorities to quickly expel migrants they encounter at the border without giving them a chance to first ask for asylum. And it's a big deal now because it has allowed the Biden administration to expel thousands of Haitian migrants. More than 5,000 have now been expelled to Haiti.

And immigrant advocates have been fighting this policy in court. They won a victory a few weeks ago when a federal judge blocked the Biden administration from expelling families under this policy. But the administration appealed. Now the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals says that the policy can continue for now while legal proceedings play out, which means the Biden administration can continue to use Title 42 for families at least into next year.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration. Joel, thanks.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose
Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.