(CN) – Citing concerns over the coronavirus outbreak, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency announced Wednesday its agents would temporarily suspend most arrests, focusing only on individuals said to pose public safety risks or subject to mandatory detention on criminal grounds.
“For those individuals who do not fall into those categories, [ICE] will exercise discretion to delay enforcement actions until after the crisis or utilize alternatives to detention, as appropriate,” the agency said in a statement.
The policy shift comes after several immigrant advocacy groups challenged ICE over its continued practice of carrying out arrests amid efforts to socially distance during the health crisis. The groups argued that immigrants who may be affected by COVID-19 may forgo medical treatment in fear of being deported.
In Wednesday’s statement, the agency said it would immediately cease any arrests at medical facilities.
“During the COVID-19 crisis, ICE will not carry out enforcement operations at or near health care facilities, such as hospitals, doctors’ offices, accredited health clinics, and emergent or urgent care facilities, except in the most extraordinary of circumstances,” the agency said. “Individuals should not avoid seeking medical care because they fear civil immigration enforcement.”
The statement did not address the more than 37,000 immigrant detainees being held by the agency. Advocacy groups and Democratic lawmakers have called for ICE to release the elderly and those with chronic health problems.
The agency said it will continue its investigations into child exploitation, gangs, narcotics trafficking, human trafficking and human smuggling.