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Biden Administration Limits ICE's Ability To Arrest And Deport Certain Non-Citizens

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

After four years of former President Trump's immigration crackdown, the Biden administration is telling ICE to change its ways. The administration announced new guidelines today for agents at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, putting limits on who they can arrest and deport. But that effort faces pushback even from inside the agency. NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration and joins us now. Hey, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So what exactly do these new guidelines say?

ROSE: Well, these guidelines are really aimed at reining in ICE. Remember; ICE is the agency that enforces immigration laws. It's charged with arresting and deporting people who are in the country illegally. And in many ways, ICE agents became the face of former President Trump's immigration crackdown. Now these agents are being told to focus on noncitizens who pose the most pressing threats to national security and to public safety. ICE leadership says this is the best way to use the agency's limited resources. So this really is a big shift from the Trump years, when ICE agents were empowered to detain anybody they encountered who was in the country illegally. That really had the desired effect of spreading fear in immigrant communities.

CHANG: Right. OK. Well, ICE now has to prioritize people who are the most pressing threats to public safety. What exactly does that even mean?

ROSE: Well, in practice, according to this guidance, that means people convicted of an aggravated felony, including violent crimes like rape or murder or people convicted of actively participating in a criminal gang. So those would be considered public safety threats, whereas a lot of other crimes would not - low-level drug offenses, for example, immigration offenses, money laundering, simple assault, even driving under the influence - immigrants convicted of those crimes would generally not be considered priorities for arrest or deportation. And ICE field officers would need preapproval from a supervisor in order to make arrests.

CHANG: And I understand that there has been some pushback against this guidance already. What are critics saying so far?

ROSE: Well, immigration hard-liners have been critical. They say the Biden administration is essentially abolishing ICE without actually abolishing it. I talked to Tom Homan, who served as the acting ICE director under former President Trump. And Homan says rank-and-file ICE agents are not happy about this.

TOM HOMAN: The men and women I know, they took an oath to enforce immigration laws. It's unfortunate they can't do the job they took an oath to enforce. And it's unfortunate that many criminals are going to be walking the streets of America because this administration simply thinks they're not important enough to take off the street.

ROSE: But there have been critics on the left, too, among immigrant advocates. The ACLU just came out with a statement slamming this new guidance, saying it doesn't go far enough to break from the, quote, "harmful deportation policies of Trump and former President Obama," and that Black and brown immigrants will continue to be disproportionately targeted by ICE.

CHANG: What about the pushback from inside the agency? Like, what are ICE agents saying right now?

ROSE: The union that represents ICE agents has been silent, but Homan and others say that this guidance will be bad for morale. Remember, the ICE union twice endorsed Donald Trump for president. And agents talked openly about feeling empowered during his administration like they'd had the handcuffs removed. In fact, the union made a very unusual deal with the Trump administration just hours before Trump left office. According to a whistleblower complaint, that deal essentially gave ICE agents the power to reject new policies that they don't like.

CHANG: Wait. What? Can they even do that?

ROSE: The Biden administration says no, no way. They announced this week that they are pulling out of that agreement. But it is not the only deal that the outgoing Trump administration made like this. After Trump lost the election, while he was a lame duck, Homeland Security signed a series of agreements with a number of states, including Texas. And under these deals, the administration must check in with those states before making important changes in immigration policy.

Texas is already trying to use this power to block Biden's agenda. It went to court to ask a judge to block his 100-day moratorium on deportations. That was one of the Biden administration's first actions on immigration. And Texas won a temporary restraining order in that case. So the Biden administration is encountering a lot of resistance as it attempts to rein in ICE, even if that's not happening quite as fast as immigrants and their advocates would like.

CHANG: That is NPR's Joel Rose. Thank you, Joel.

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