WASHINGTON — The Trump administration will no longer seek to automatically release pregnant immigrants from detention — a move in line with the overall efforts by the administration to hold far more immigrants in custody than its predecessors.
The change in policy could pave the way for more pregnant women to be held in detention facilities while they await lengthy court proceedings about whether they can stay in the U.S., facilities that are already decried by critics for tough conditions.
The decision comes as immigration advocates have assailed the administration’s efforts to hold more immigrants in detention writ large and its increased arrest of noncriminal immigrants.
The change in policy was sent by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to Congress on Thursday morning and later announced in a conference call with reporters.
The policy was first finalized in December, officials said.
According to Philip Miller, a top official in ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations, as of March 20, there were 35 pregnant women in detention in ICE’s custody.
Since December, 506 pregnant women have been detained, Miller said.
He said it was difficult to estimate how many more pregnant immigrants would be detained under the new policy.
Immigrants who are caught trying to cross the border illegally already are required to be in detention — although once they pass a threshold test for asylum claims, the government can choose to release them.
He also could not say how the policy applied to nursing mothers.
According to the new directive, immigration officers will no longer default to trying to release pregnant women who fall into immigration custody, either because they are undocumented or otherwise subject to deportation.
The Obama administration policy urged officers to presume a pregnant woman could be released except for extreme circumstances.
But an FAQ sent with the directive makes clear that ICE is not going to detain all pregnant immigrants.
The policy will require a case-by-case evaluation, the FAQ explains, and will keep in custody “only those whose detention is necessary to effectuate removal, as well as those deemed a flight risk or danger to the community.”
ICE will also lean toward releasing pregnant women if they are in their third trimester, Miller said mainly because they would not be allowed to fly and thus couldn’t be deported in that trimester, and will also make an effort for detention facilities to provide services to pregnant women and parents.
Miller downplayed the impact of the change, saying it was an attempt to make clear the administration’s policy that no immigrants are exempt from enforcement.
“To mischaracterize this as some kind of wholesale change or draconian change is inaccurate. We’re aligning this policy, as all of our policies, with executive orders from the president,” Miller said.
The move follows controversial efforts by the Department of Health and Human Services to keep unaccompanied minor immigrants in custody instead of releasing them to obtain abortions, a policy that has been the subject of intense litigation and criticism from the advocacy community.