Advocates say new ICE order backing off immigrant crime victims is ‘powerful policy’—if followed

Advocates say new ICE order backing off immigrant crime victims is ‘powerful policy’—if followed

The Biden administration this week issued a directive instructing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to not target the undocumented immigrant victims of crime, barring “exceptional circumstances.”

The guidance instructs agents to refrain from sweeping up immigrants protected by special U-visas aiding the undocumented immigrant victims of crime, or are in the process of applying for one. Agents are now also to reconsider detaining individuals who have also been victims of crime, but haven’t applied for a U-visa.

“This is a powerful policy designed to ensure that individuals who have suffered a serious harm as a result of a crime in the US, who cooperated with law enforcement, are not deported—as Congress intended,” American Immigration Council policy counsel Aaron Reichlin-Melnick tweeted in response to the guidance. “Now the hard part comes: getting local field offices to follow the policy.

“Under Obama, ICE policy said that crime victims shouldn’t be deported if they were applying for a U visa and were likely to have the visa granted,” he continued. But under the previous administration, “that policy was ignored and then revoked, leading to many people being deported who had a clear path to status.” He said: “if the White House doesn’t make sure that local offices are following that policy it can become meaningless.”

ICE claims in its directive that “[w]hen victims have access to humanitarian protection, regardless of their immigration status, and can feel safe in coming forward, it strengthens the ability of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, including ICE, to detect, investigate, and prosecute crimes.” But advocates have every right to be suspicious of whether individual agents will follow this policy.

Recall that witnesses and potential witnesses to the abuses of the Georgia gynecologist who operated on detained immigrant women without their consent were targeted for deportation by ICE. In another example back in 2017, ICE notoriously swept up a transgender woman who had gone to court to secure a protective order against her abuser. Denver’s city attorney told Slate in 2017 that because some women were no longer cooperating with the city out of fear of being separated from their families, her office was left with no choice but to drop their cases and let their abusers go free. 

ICE’s new directive is authored by acting Director Tae Johnson, who is a holdover from the previous administration. While the Biden administration’s nominee to officially head the agency, Texas Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, received his Senate hearing last month, his responses “seemed to suggest he wants mostly more of the same,” Reichlin-Melnick noted at the time. “Gonzalez seemed more interested in placating anti-immigrant politicians on the committee than laying out a vision for reform,” American Civil Liberties Union Senior Policy Counsel Naureen Shah said in a statement received by Daily Kos.

The Biden administration has already taken a significant step to aid U-visa applicants, announcing in June that it’s expanding access to work permits for some immigrants in the application process. Due to a huge backlog at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, waits to gain permission to work legally while cases are reviewed have bloated from 11 months in fiscal year 2015 to at least five years, The New York Times reported.

Dream Big Nevada deputy director and U-visa recipient Dulce Valencia called the administration’s expansion of work permits “tremendous news,” citing the long process she endured. “My U-Visa has been life changing but the process itself took many years. This news renews my faith that times are changing for the better and gives me hope that the hundreds of thousands of immigrants currently waiting will soon be able to benefit from this life changing programs,” she said.

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