The Biden administration is limiting the detention and arrest of pregnant immigrants in the US, according to a notice sent to congressional staffers on Friday.
The policy — which states that ICE should not detain pregnant, postpartum, or nursing individuals unless it is legally prohibited or there are exceptional circumstances — comes after the Trump administration lifted the presumption of release for such detainees in 2017.
“ICE is committed to safeguarding the integrity of our immigration system and preserving the health and safety of pregnant, postpartum, and nursing individuals,” said acting ICE Director Tae D. Johnson in a statement sent to congressional staffers Friday. “Given the unique needs of this population, we will not detain individuals known to be pregnant, postpartum, or nursing unless release is prohibited by law or exceptional circumstances exist. This reflects our commitment to treat all individuals with respect and dignity while still enforcing our nation’s laws.”
A Government Accountability Office report found that ICE had detained more than 4,500 pregnant detainees between 2016 and 2018, and that while most were kept in custody for less than a week, about 10% were in detention for more than a month.
The memo represents the latest change pushed by a Biden administration that is intent on reshaping ICE. In recent weeks, ICE officials have set up a process for immigrants to appeal deportations and arrests via individuals at agency headquarters, sharply limited who could be arrested at courthouses across the US, and mandated that immigrants no longer be referred to as “illegal aliens” in official communications.
Despite the changes, the number of immigrants detained by ICE has grown significantly under the Biden administration, including those who have passed their initial asylum screenings, according to an analysis of government data by BuzzFeed News.
The number of immigrants held in private prisons and local jails that sat partially empty during the pandemic has risen from 14,000 earlier this year to more than 27,000.
The number of detentions of pregnant people decreased from 2016 to 2017 but then rose again to more than 2,000 in 2018, according to the GAO report. ICE officials had told the GAO that the "individual circumstances" of each case dictated the length of detention time and that the agency held on to pregnant people in cases that moved quickly or where the immigrants were ordered deported.
An executive order signed by former president Donald Trump in 2017 made it so nearly every undocumented immigrant became a priority for arrest. Not long after, ICE prosecutors were restricted from granting reprieves for certain immigrants facing deportation and ordered to review and potentially reopen previously closed cases. Soon, the proportion of immigrants with no prior criminal convictions who were being arrested and placed into deportation proceedings began to shoot up.
In their notice to congressional staffers on Friday, an ICE official said, “In the very limited circumstances in which detention is necessary and appropriate, ICE provides general health and well-being care, including regular custody and medical reevaluation, ensuring appropriate pre- and/or postnatal and other medical and mental health car.”