Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has pledged to limit its roundups of undocumented immigrants to those deemed a public-safety threat during the COVID-19 outbreak. But thousands of people in its jails who aren’t deemed a public-safety risk will stay locked up, the immigration agency indicated to The Daily Beast.
Migrants inside ICE jails and their advocates outside are warning that conditions within the tightly packed lockups represent a coronavirus tinderbox.
Late Tuesday afternoon, ICE announced a dramatic change to its enforcement rules. During the public-health emergency, the controversial law-enforcement agency will return to its pre-Trump administration prioritization of “public-safety risks and individuals subject to mandatory detention based on criminal grounds.” ICE agents will delay arresting people who don’t fall into those categories “or utilize alternatives to detention, as appropriate.”
And, after an image of ICE escorting a convicted man to a hospital went viral, ICE reiterated a longstanding policy that it will not arrest people “at or near health care facilities” so as not to discourage people from seeking medical care.
ICE officials say the situation is fluid, and that it frequently reviews its custody decisions, which can lead to release. That’s one of the reasons why the number of people in ICE custody fluctuates (deportation being another).
But for now, “there has been no announcement related to releasing individuals that are currently detained,” an ICE official clarified to The Daily Beast.
Immigration advocates warned that not releasing any detainees poses its own public-health risk.
“Public-health experts nationally have made clear that the most effective step ICE could take to protect the public health and safety of all our communities would be to release as many people as possible from immigration detention and allow them to be with their families and the safety of their homes. ICE has the legal and moral authority to take this step immediately,” said Heidi Altman, the policy director at the National Immigrant Justice Center.
Thus far, ICE is reporting no cases of COVID-19 in its network of jails. As of March 14, ICE statistics indicate more than 37,311 people are in its custody, arrested either by ICE or by Customs and Border Enforcement (CBE). Of that number, 19,526 are convicted criminals or face criminal charges. The remaining 17,785 people are listed as “other immigration violator.”
Two detainees in a Karnes County, Texas ICE jail that holds approximately 700 people warn that conditions inside risk an outbreak.
“Most of the people here are women and children, many of whom are already sick or not eating well. We are all worried that if the virus reaches this detention center, many people could die,” according to a Haitian man in custody with his family, in a statement made through an interpreter. Doctors inside the Geo Group-run facility “are already not able to protect us.”
A 40-year-old man from the Democratic Republic of Congo held in the same jail said the detainees do not have access to masks or hand sanitizer and are held in close quarters, making it impossible to practice the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended social distancing.
“The officials here have not said anything to us about what is happening outside, or any extra precautions that we should take. We are scared because nobody will tell us anything, and we fear that nobody will take care of us,” the man said.
Both declarations, which blacked out the names of both men, were released on Tuesday by the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES). The same day, RAICES announced the suicide of a man inside the Karnes County facility, the ninth person to have died in immigration custody since October, according to BuzzFeed News’ Hamed Aleaziz.
“ICE detention kills. We have known this for years, and we know that more people will die if a COVID-19 outbreak occurs,” said RAICES’ director of family-detention services, Andrea Meza. “ICE prisons are rural and isolated, and an outbreak will put a huge strain on local communities. While the country participates in social distancing, people in ICE detention are begging all of us for help as they are forced to live in cramped quarters with hundreds of other people and prison workers.”
Meza said that inside the jails, guards can use hand sanitizer that isn’t available to detainees.
“ICE headquarters must direct their local leadership to release everyone in ICE custody now, prioritizing families, pregnant women, babies, and other vulnerable populations, or many more lives will be lost on their watch. No doubt these lives will include not only immigrant people, but ICE’s own staff and contractors,” Meza told The Daily Beast.
Altman, of the National Immigrant Justice Center, pointed out that ICE’s detention statistics ahead of Tuesday’s policy change showed no appreciable slowdown in arrests during the COVID-19 outbreak. ICE had 38,664 people in custody on Feb. 22 and 37,888 on March 7. As well, current ICE statistics show it has 5,687 asylum seekers in custody for whom the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services determined have established persecution or torture claims justifying entry.
“ICE should be engaging in a file review of every single person in custody and releasing as many people as possible and as urgently as possible, in furtherance of the entire nation’s health and safety,” Altman said. “Their own statistics show there are nearly 6,000 asylum seekers in jail who have passed their threshold interviews to establish asylum eligibility. Per ICE’s own directives should be released immediately.”