The Biden administration will begin curbing the arrests of immigrants in courthouses and curbing a practice that sparked a federal lawsuit by two Massachusetts prosecutors and civil rights groups.
Homeland Security Minister Alejandro Mayorkas directed two federal agencies, Immigration and Customs Control and Customs and Border Protection, to limit when they can arrest people for civil immigration violations in or near courthouses.
“The expansion of civil immigration arrests in courthouses during the previous administration had a terrifying effect on individuals’ willingness to go to court or to cooperate with law enforcement,” Mayorkas said in a statement. “Today’s guidance is the final step in our efforts to focus our civil immigration enforcement resources on domestic and public security threats.”
The guidelines allow agents to conduct civilian immigration arrests based on a national security matter, an imminent risk of death, violence or personal injury, an active pursuit of anyone posing a threat to public safety, or an imminent risk that criminal evidence will be destroyed to undertake.
The preliminary guidelines also allow federal agents to detain immigrants against public security threats who are not actively pursued “where necessary and with prior authorization,” the Department of Homeland Security wrote in a press release on Tuesday.
Arrests of immigrants for civil violations occurred before President Donald Trump took office in 2017, but were far more common under the Trump administration. An ICE guideline issued in early 2018 formalized the practice and recommended ICE officials to act discreetly in order to minimize disruption to the legal process.
The preliminary guide comes two years after Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, and a group of civil rights lawyers in the greater Boston area sued ICE for its practice of arresting immigrants in courthouses. Civil rights attorneys, one of several plaintiffs, had counted more than 100 court arrests across Massachusetts in the past year.
U.S. District Court judge Indira Talwani ruled in favor of the group in August 2019, banning ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations Boston from arresting immigrants for civil violations around courthouses in Massachusetts.
In September, the Court of First Instance overturned Talwani’s injunction more than a year later and sent the matter back to Talwani for review.
In a joint statement, prosecutors, LCR and the Committee for Public Counsel Services said the DHS’s announcement addressed some of the concerns raised in their lawsuit. The group is still reviewing the guidelines before making decisions on the lawsuit, which is still under review in court.
“We are encouraged by today’s preliminary guidance that somewhat restricts enforcement of civil immigration within the criminal justice system,” the group said. “We hope this change will reverse the culture of fear that has pervaded our courthouses in recent years.”