Changing policy could pave the way for pregnant women to be held in detention centers while awaiting lengthy trials to stay in the US, facilities already criticized by critics for difficult conditions. The decision comes as immigration advocates have attacked the government's efforts to keep more immigrants in custody and their increasing arrest of non-criminal immigrants.
The change in policy was sent to Congress by the Immigration Department and the Customs Office on Thursday morning and later announced in a telephone conference with reporters. The policy was first completed in December, officials said.
According to Philip Miller, a senior ICE Enforcement and Dismissal Department official, since March 20, 35 pregnant women have been in the custody of the ICE. Since December, 506 pregnant women have been detained, Miller added.
He said it was difficult to estimate how many more pregnant immigrants would be held under the new policy. Immigrants caught illegally crossing the border must be in custody. However, once they pass a threshold test for asylum applications, the government can decide to release them. He also could not say how the policy applies to nursing mothers.
Under the new directive, immigration officials will no longer seek to release pregnant women who are in immigration detention either because they are undocumented or otherwise deported. The Obama administration's policy urged officials to assume that a pregnant woman could be released except in extreme circumstances.
But a FAQ posted with the directive makes it clear that ICE will not detain all pregnant immigrants. The directive will require a case-by-case review, it says in the FAQ, and will "detain only those whose detention is necessary to remove them, as well as those who are considered to be a risk of air or danger to the community".
ICE will also focus on the release of pregnant women in the third trimester, Miller said mainly because they were not allowed to fly and therefore could not be deported in that trimester, and will also seek to provide detention facilities to pregnant women and parents.
Miller downplayed the impact of the change and said it was an attempt to clarify the government's policy that no immigrants were exempted from enforcement.
"To mistakenly characterize this as a kind of wholesale change or draconian change is wrong. We are aligning this policy, as do all our policies, with executive presidential orders."
Michelle Brané, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice Program of the Women's Refugee Commission, described the action as "an attack on women and children."
"The Women's Refugee Commission has long documented the dangerous and unhealthy prison conditions that are particularly dangerous and unsuitable for pregnant women," Brané said in a statement. "Many women are pregnant because of rape or violence that they either experienced while traveling to the US or that may be part of an asylum application, which is particularly traumatic for pregnant women and even more for victims of rape and violence." [1
The Trump government has urged the ICE to extend the detention of immigrant immigrants in order to reduce the number of people living in the US while awaiting trial.
The process of completing a deportation in the US Immigration Tribunals can take years, and often the immigrants released from custody begin to build lives in US communities, start families, and in cases where they get a work permit eligible to take up a job.