The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced Tuesday that it will release vulnerable immigrants detained in its jails.
"Due to the unprecedented nature of the new coronavirus (COVID-19), ICE is reviewing cases of detainees who may be vulnerable to the virus," the agency said in a letter sent to Congress on Tuesday.
"Using guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in conjunction with advice from medical professionals, ICE can place people in a number of alternatives to detention options," wrote Sean M. Hackbarth, assistant deputy director of the federal agency's congressional relations office, in the letter.
Hackbarth further said that "decisions to release people in ICE custody occur every day on a case-by-case basis."
Since the pandemic was declared in March, lawmakers, religious leaders, lawyers, judges, nonprofits, and even the largest union of federal employees, have called on the government to free the population of vulnerable immigrants, such as those over 60 and sick people.
The main reasons given were that overcrowding in detention centers and the lack of an adequate protocol to contain the virus would cause an unprecedented tragedy in detention centers, taking into account the aggressiveness of the virus and the high risk of causing death.
In the letter sent to the legislature, Hackbarth indicates that ICE "has a long history of managing communicable diseases in the course of day-to-day operations, and maintains emergency and contingency plans for a pandemic."
He further assured that "the agency has modified its enforcement stance, detention operations and visitation practices to ensure that the persons in the custody of the agency and its employees remain safe."
However, the agency's view is not shared by inmates at one of its Louisiana detention centers. In a series of audios that Univision Noticias had access to on Tuesday, several immigrants reported that they live in crowded dormitories, personal hygiene items are scarce and there are several suspected cases of isolated and quarantined people.
The agency, however, denied the allegations, noting that there have been no positive cases of coronavirus in Louisiana, and that cleaning and grooming items are delivered daily.
Case by case
ICE also said in the letter sent to Congress that “it makes custody decisions every day on a case-by-case basis, in accordance with the law and the policy of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), taking into account the merits and factors of each file while adhering to the agency's current priorities, guidelines and legal mandates.”
"In making such decisions, ICE officers weigh a variety of factors, including the person's criminal history, immigration history, community ties, risk of flight, and whether he or she represents a potential threat to the public safety,” he indicated.
These protocols will be implemented in deciding who is released and who is not. "The agency has instructed its field offices to further evaluate and consider the release of certain individuals deemed to be at increased risk of exposure, in accordance with CDC guidelines, reviewing cases of persons 60 years of age and older, as well as those who are pregnant,” the letter notes.
Hackbarth further said that they continue efforts to identify other people who may be more vulnerable to COVID-19, "based on the risk factors identified by the CDC, in addition to age and pregnancy, are ongoing according to the recommendations of the CDC ”.
ICE also said that it "continues to reevaluate all persons in custody who make up vulnerable populations," and that as of March 30, 2020, some 600 detainees were identified as "vulnerable" and more than 160 were released from the agency's custody.
Observers applaud the decision
The announcement made by ICE and formalized through a letter sent to Congress was applauded by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which on Saturday had sent a letter to the DHS reiterating the demand.
“ICE finally acknowledges that what we have been fighting in court is true: immigration detention is a death sentence for people who are at high risk due to age or medical conditions,” said Eunice Cho, principal lawyer for the National Prison Project at the ACLU.
“It is absolutely excessive that we keep people detained in these conditions. Of course, public health experts have made it clear that we need to see dramatic reductions in the 35,000 people detained," she said.
Cho further stated that "many more than the 600 released must be removed from detention centers to significantly mitigate the spread of covid-19 and avoid a humanitarian crisis."
In the letter sent by the ACLU on Saturday, the civil rights group asked DHS for the temporary release of all those detained by ICE during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Democratic Senator Bob Menéndez (New Jersey) told Univision News that "I am pleased that ICE is exercising its discretion during the COVID-19 pandemic and releasing immigrants who are not a risk to public safety, and who are vulnerable to the virus."
“As I said in my letter to DHS and ICE last week requesting the release of non-violent and at-risk detainees, closed places in detention centers pose a health hazard to detainees, detention center employees and the general public. ICE can save lives and I hope they act quickly," he said.