Biden administration limits ICE arrests at schools, churches, daycares and other ‘protected areas’

A banner in front of a church says 'Immigrants & Refugees Welcome.'
Under new guidance, churches are now considered ‘protected areas,’ not just ‘sensitive locations,’ making them generally off limit to US immigration agents. Michael Siluk/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
  • Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas has issued new guidance for immigration raids.
  • Mayorkas said immigration agents must consider the societal impact of enforcement operations.
  • The new policy goes is effective immediately.

The Biden administration has formally instructed US immigration agents to refrain from carrying out arrests at schools, churches, and COVID-19 vaccination sites, with new guidance describing these sites as “protected areas.”

In a statement on Wednesday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the policy would cover enforcement actions by Immigration and Customs Enforcement as well as Customs and Border Protection.

Under previous guidance, issued in 2011 under former President Barack Obama, such locations were described as “sensitive,” not “protected.” The new rules take effect immediately and will be accompanied by updated training.

According to the department, the new terminology is intended to convey that these sites are effectively off limits, with exceptions for national security threats, risks of imminent violence, and the “hot pursuit” of targets for arrest and deportation.

“We can accomplish our law enforcement mission without denying individuals access to needed medical care, children access to their schools, the displaced access to food and shelter, people of faith access to their places of worship,” Mayorkas said in a statement.

Naureen Shah, senior policy counsel at the ACLU, described the new guidance as an “important step forward.” But, in a statement, she warned that it could still be “circumvented by agents whom the agency continues to rely on to unilaterally make complex, sensitive judgments about the applicability of the policy.”

As written, at least, the new guidance expands the number of places where enforcement actions cannot take place, with rare exception.

Examples of a “protected area” include:

  • Schools
  • Medical facilities
  • Places of worship
  • Daycares and recreation centers
  • Food banks and shelters
  • Disaster areas, including evacuation routes, and emergency-care providers
  • Funerals
  • Public demonstrations

A five-page memo explaining the policy says immigration agents must consider the impact their actions would have “on people’s willingness to be in the protected area or engage in the essential services or activities that occur there.”

Under the Trump administration, arrests at “sensitive” locations were relatively rare but not unheard of.

In September 2020, for example, ICE agents arrested an Indonesian immigrant at Glenmont United Methodist Church in Silver Spring Maryland. As The Washington Post reported, the man, Binsar Siahaan, was a caretaker who lived on church grounds. He was released weeks later following protests from clergy and a ruling by a federal judge that he be allowed to seek religious asylum.

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