Immigration and Customs Enforcement has issued a new policy that states women known to be pregnant or nursing should not be detained, arrested or taken into custody unless release is prohibited, according to newly-released guidance.
The move is a shift away from the Trump administration, when immigration officers were directed to no longer default to trying to release pregnant women who fall into immigration custody. The Obama administration policy urged officers to presume a pregnant woman could be released except for extreme circumstances.
In an ICE notice sent to members of Congress on Friday and obtained by CNN, acting Director Tae Johnson said the change “reflects our commitment to treat all individuals with respect and dignity while still enforcing our nation’s laws.”
Over recent months, the Biden administration has rolled out a series of changes relating to immigration enforcement, stemming from President Joe Biden’s executive orders seeking to undo the more aggressive measures taken under his predecessor.
In February, for example, ICE rolled out new guidelines that would curtail enforcement measures, focusing more narrowly on immigrants who pose a national security, border security or public safety risk and marking a return to Obama-era immigration enforcement measures. The administration also moved to end family detention earlier this year.
Immigrant advocates have repeatedly warned of the harms of detaining pregnant women and criticized the Trump administration for revoking previous policy limiting their detention. In a 2019 report, the Government Accountability Project found an increase in the detention of pregnant individuals from 2016 to 2018, but said officers in some areas still generally avoided detaining pregnant women.
“This action by the Biden administration is a welcome step in the right direction. This move brings us closer to more humane treatment by ICE of people who are pregnant, postpartum, or nursing,” said Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney with the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, in a statement.
Jorge Loweree, director of policy at the American Immigration Council, echoed Cho, saying: “It’s great to see the administration directing ICE to finally take meaningful steps to limit enforcement activities in this manner, and we are hopeful that this announcement is an indication of a broader shift on detention policy.”
The latest ICE directive outlines the steps that should be taken in the “very limited circumstances” that an individual who’s known to be pregnant, postpartum, or nursing is detained. It includes, for example, notifying senior ICE officials prior to an arrest. If ICE identifies a woman who’s pregnant, postpartum, or nursing, in detention, senior ICE officials should also be notified to determine whether continued detention is appropriate.
The guidance also goes further than directive issued under the Obama administration by also including women who are nursing and the one-year period immediately after they give birth to their child.
As of July 2, there are 27,008 immigrants in ICE detention, according to agency data.
This story has been updated with additional developments Friday.