Homelessness and Immigration Enforcement: What You Should Know

written by Kathryn Monet
February 22, 2017

Since President Trump took office and signed executive orders related to immigration policy, law-enforcement officials have greater authority to pursue and prosecute a wider range of undocumented immigrants.


The recent arrests of several undocumented immigrants leaving a hypothermia shelter located in a church in Virginia have prompted many to ask how they can protect the rights of at-risk clients, as well as how to prepare for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) actions.


While this isn’t legal advice, here are three things you should know. Please seek legal advice if you or your organization needs a more detailed understanding of how this information applies to specific situations.

Three Things You Should Know About Homelessness and Immigration Enforcement

1. Immigration enforcement priorities have changed.

A recent raid in several states was similar to raids that occurred under the Obama Administration, with one major difference: the Obama Administration specified that individuals targeted had committed a crime. The new executive order broadens the rules to include any individuals considered suspect.

People that were arrested under this new order included those who had committed a crime, but also included anyone who was found during the search for those previous offenders. 

For more information about the order, check out the National Immigration Law Center’s analysis and detailed implementation advice from the Department of Homeland Security.

2. ICE has a “sensitive locations” policy.

An ICE spokeswoman said the agency’s “sensitive location” policy was followed and emphasized that the arrests in Virginia took place across the street from the church shelter and not on church property.

The ICE sensitive location policy prevents immigration enforcement actions like arrests, interviews, searches and immigration-only surveillance at specific locations. This includes schools, places of worship, hospitals, public religious ceremonies, and public demonstrations without prior approval unless there are circumstances that create more urgency.

3. ICE has a policy regarding the removal of victims and witnesses of crime.

ICE has a policy that is in place to encourage agents to use discretion when it comes to victims of and witnesses to crimes for fear of deterring these people from reporting them. This includes survivors of domestic violence and trafficking. It is also important to know that in certain instances, these survivors may be eligible to apply for citizenship or special visas.

Four Things You Can Do to Prepare for Immigration Enforcement

1. Know what to do if ICE is at your door.

Know your rights. There are several informed and comprehensive guides and toolkits to help you understand what you can do.

  • The American Civil Liberties Union has a concise guide describing actions you can take if ICE is at your door, looking for someone. 
  • The Immigrant Defense Project also has a slightly longer guide in eight languages and a toolkit that covers rights and actions people can take if ICE approaches them in a public location like a courthouse on the street.

2. Review your program’s policies and procedures.

There are a number of program operations that should be examined to ensure that clients are able to safely access housing services without fear of detention. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Data-collection. Review the data you collect on participants. If needed, clarify your organization’s policy on data-collection, retention, and sharing. Ensure your staff is well-versed in your data-collection policies. The National Human Services Data Consortium has recommendations that include a list of questions organizations can ask to ensure they are collecting and retaining appropriate levels of data, and avoiding unnecessary data collection that could put clients at risk. 
  • Facility access policies. Review your facility’s policies regarding building access. Develop clear policies on who is and isn’t allowed access, and under what circumstances (i.e. with a warrant or without). Train your front line staff and your clients on this policy to improve compliance.

3. Help program participants access legal assistance.

Organizations serving a large immigrant population should consider partnering with legal service providers to address legal issues related to their participants’ immigration status. These providers can also represent those detained by ICE. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) published a guide on engaging legal services in efforts to end homelessness. While not immigration-specific, it provides practical solutions that providers can use to increase access to legal services for their clients. 

The Immigrant Defense Project has posters to remind immigrants of key rights and information to remember to document during an enforcement action.

4.Help clients create safety plans.

This includes taking actions like organizing documents, making arrangements for child care in case of emergency, creating power of attorney documents, and documenting your medications and their doses. The Immigrant Defense Project has a two-page list of actions clients can take to prepare their contingency plan in case of emergency. 

Let us know what you are hearing in your community, and what actions you are taking to ensure your program or facility is prepared. We will continue to monitor these issues and provide updates when warranted.