Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas speaks during a press briefing at the White House in late September. Mayorkas announced Tuesday that ICE will no longer conduct mass workplace raids.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas speaks during a press briefing at the White House in late September. Mayorkas announced Tuesday that ICE will no longer conduct mass workplace raids. Patrick Semansky / AP

Immigration and Customs Enforcement to Cease Worksite Raids

Efforts to round up undocumented immigrants en masse waste resources, Biden administration says.

The Biden administration has directed the government’s immigration enforcers to no longer carry out raids at workplaces, calling the operations a distraction from their true mission. 

Immigration and Customs Enforcement will no longer conduct “mass worksite” raids that have often led to the arrests of hundreds of undocumented workers, Homeland Security Department Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced on Tuesday. He stressed that ICE should focus instead on prosecuting problematic employers who exploit their workers and encouraging immigrants to come forward about such abuses. 

The announcement follows one last month from Mayorkas in which he instructed ICE agents not to arrest or deport anyone for the sole basis of being in the United States without legal authorization. ICE’s role, tactics and priorities have shifted significantly from one administration to the next since the Homeland Security Department's creation. The Trump administration, for example, engaged in several high-profile worksite raids. 

Such operations distract from the “most pernicious aspect of our country’s unauthorized employment challenge,” Mayorkas said, pointing instead at “exploitative employers.” The secretary said the Biden administration will focus on upping the consequences for such employers and easing the path for exploited workers to speak out, including by working with other federal and state agencies. 

The workplace raids "misallocated enforcement resources while chilling, and even serving as a tool of retaliation for, worker cooperation in workplace standards investigations,” Mayorkas said. 

John Sandweg, who served as an acting ICE director under President Obama, said some previous administrations used the raids for messaging, but agreed they were largely a distraction from other work. He added the worksite operations were “incredibly inefficient,” noting ICE can already find and arrest far more undocumented immigrants than the system can process. 

The raids “detract from other operations that are focused on national security and public safety,” Sandweg said, noting the raids rarely lead to any arrests of individuals who pose a serious threat. 

Nothing in Mayorkas’ memo will prevent ICE agents from conducting criminal investigations or carrying out search warrants, Sandweg said, explaining some worksites could still face ICE visits as agents launch probes into exploitative employers. Raids aimed simply at rounding up undocumented immigrants en masse distract from those other investigations, pull special agents from their work, are costly and require extensive planning. They are typically planned and conducted by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations division, meaning they are pulling resources away from work combatting human trafficking, customs fraud and other national security work. 

Mayorkas said that going forward, Homeland Security will consider deferring deportations for those involved in workplace exploitation cases, which the Labor Department has requested. Department employees will make case-by-case determinations. Such an approach should “mitigate the fear” workers feel toward coming forward to report “unscrupulous employers,” the secretary said.  

Sandweg predicted ICE employees, particularly the special agents working on national security investigations, would celebrate the changes. 

“They will welcome it,” he said. “The agents, in my experience, have never been big fans of worksite operations. There are higher-profile, higher-value operations they’d rather be doing.”