Undocumented in the U.S.: Is There Anywhere I'm Safe From ICE?

Churches, schools, and hospitals may no longer be the sanctuary they once were.

If you are in the U.S. without immigration papers, you have no doubt heard stories about officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raiding homes, workplaces, street corners, and more. Enforcement efforts have been stepped up significantly since Donald J. Trump took office, and non-criminal immigrants are now targeted with near-equal intensity to those who have criminal records or previous deportations. Is there anywhere you can go to be safe?

In the past, ICE followed what was known as a "sensitive locations" policy, outlined in a 2011 memo. Under this policy, ICE searches, arrests, and other enforcement actions were not supposed to take place at schools, churches, and the like, unless warranted by exigent circumstances or the ICE agents had obtained prior approval from someone higher up in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

What Is a “Sensitive Location?”

To some degree, ICE determines what locations might be seen as “sensitive” on a case-by-case basis. However, the 2011 memo provided the following examples:

  • schools (pre-school, primary, secondary, post-secondary, colleges, universities, and other institutions of learning such as vocational or trade schools)
  • hospitals
  • churches, synagogues, mosques or other houses of worship, including buildings rented for religious services
  • sites of funerals, weddings, or other public religious ceremonies, and
  • public demonstrations, such as marches, rallies, or parades.

The idea is to avoid significant disruptions. The memo also notes that ICE should take special care with any organization that assists children, pregnant women, victims of crime or abuse, or people with significant mental or physical disabilities. And if an action brings ICE agents close to a sensitive location, they are expected to conduct themselves discreetly.

Exceptions to the sensitive-locations policy may be made in situations where, for example, national security is at stake, ICE is pursuing a dangerous felon or terrorist suspect, there’s an imminent risk of someone dying or a person or property undergoing violence or physical harm, or they might otherwise lose evidence that’s important to an ongoing criminal case.

Does ICE Continue to Stay Away From Sensitive Locations?

Although to date, the memo on sensitive locations hasn’t been rescinded, many news reports seem to indicate that ICE agents are disregarding it. Reports have surfaced of ICE arresting a parent dropping off a child for school, men who’d left a church-run hypothermia shelter, and more.

Until the memo has changed, it’s possible that these events are unusual and that ICE will calm down. Besides that, ICE has limited resources, and simply cannot allocate officers to every location that immigrants might be found.

Nevertheless, it would be prudent, if you are undocumented, to research whether you have any possibility of applying for status in the U.S. and consult with an immigration attorney for a full personal case analysis.

And in case the worst happens, take steps to protect your family with an emergency plan. See, for example, Arrest by ICE: How Can I Arrange to Protect My Child in the Event of Deportation?

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