March 18 (UPI) -- U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced it will stop performing arrests nationwide of individuals who have neither committed a crime nor pose a risk to the public until the COVID-19 pandemic is over.
ICE said in a statement late Wednesday that it will "temporarily adjust its enforcement posture" effective immediately and shift focus to public safety risks, those who are subject to detention on criminal grounds and those it deems "mission critical."
Investigations will continue into child exploitation, gangs, narcotics trafficking, human trafficking, human smuggling and terrorism. For those who have not committed any of those transgressions, the agency said it will either use "alternatives to detention" or "delay enforcement actions until after the crisis."
Agents will also not perform arrests near healthcare facilities "expect in the most extraordinary of circumstances," the agency said, in order to not scare people possibly sick with the infectious coronavirus that has killed more than 100 people in the country from getting help.
"Individuals should not avoid seeking medical care because they fear civil immigration enforcement," the statement read.
The announcement came amid mounting criticism against the agency during the crisis.
On Monday, lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union sued ICE on behalf of immigrants detained at the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center in Washington who are at high risk of serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19.
Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, the lawsuit contains physician testimony of the risks posed to detainees in the state, which is one of the worst affected by the virus with 1,187 infections and 66 deaths, according to the Washington State Department of Health.
"Immigrant detention centers are institutions that uniquely heighten the danger of disease transmission," said Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU's National Prison Project. "In normal circumstances, ICE has proven time and again that it is unable to protect the health and safety of detained people. These are not normal circumstances, and the heightened risk of serious harm to people in detention from COVID-19 is clear."
On Sunday, the National Association of Immigration Judges, the ICE professionals Union and the American Immigration Lawyers Association called for immigration courts to be closed for a minimum of two weeks due to health concerns over the virus.
"Our nation is currently in the throes of a historic global pandemic," the groups said in a statement. "The Department of Justice's current response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its spread is insufficient and not premised on transparent scientific information. The DOJ is failing to meet its obligations to ensure a safe and healthy environment within our immigration courts."
Overnight Tuesday, the Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review announced that all non-detained hearings would be postponed and a handful of its 68 courts would be closed.