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Law360 (March 18, 2020, 11:10 PM EDT) -- U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Wednesday announced that it would only be arresting individuals with criminal backgrounds or those who pose public safety risks, an effort to ensure the welfare and safety of the general public as well as its officers and agents in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Effective immediately, ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations will delay enforcement actions against other individuals until after the crisis or employ "alternatives to detention," the agency said in a statement.
ICE's investigative arm will continue to carry out criminal investigations and enforcement actions that are determined necessary to maintain public safety and national security, ICE said. That work includes investigations into child exploitation, gangs, narcotics trafficking, human trafficking and human smuggling, it said.
ICE will also halt any enforcement operations at or near health care facilities — including hospitals, doctors' offices, accredited health clinics, and emergent or urgent care facilities — except in "the most extraordinary of circumstances," the agency said.
It added that individuals should not avoid seeking medical care for fear of civil immigration enforcement.
"ICE's highest priorities are to promote life-saving and public safety issues," the agency said in the statement.
U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., said in a statement that ICE's decision to change its enforcement posture came after she discussed the issue with ICE officials earlier Wednesday.
"Our government should never, ever force anyone, including immigrants, to put their lives, or the lives of their loved ones or neighbors, at risk by avoiding medical care," said Roybal-Allard, who is the chairwoman for the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee.
She added that during the COVID-19 public health crisis, "it is imperative for all Americans, regardless of immigration status, to be unafraid of seeking medical attention."
Overnight Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice postponed all immigration court hearings for immigrants who aren't in detention and closed 10 courthouses, following backlash from attorneys and judges who said they feared continuing hearings would threaten public health.
In addition to the Seattle immigration court, which closed last week, immigration courts in Atlanta; Charlotte, North Carolina; Houston; Memphis, Tennessee; Sacramento, California; Newark, New Jersey; and two in New York City are closed through April 10. An immigration court in Los Angeles is also closed, the DOJ said Tuesday night, while the immigration court in Louisville, Kentucky, has been closed since August for reasons unrelated to the virus.
Those 11 closed immigration courts are a mere fraction of the 69 total immigration courts across 31 states and territories.
--Additional reporting by Suzanne Monyak. Editing by Emily Kokoll.
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