ICE Backtracks on Reducing Enforcement Actions During Coronavirus Outbreak. Advocates Still Demand Immigrant Detainees in ICE Custody are Released

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced this week that it would temporarily halt most of its arrests due to the coronavirus pandemic, but backtracked on this statement the following day.

On March 19, Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, wrote on Twitter that the agency will continue to arrest and detain people despite calls from public officials to the public to practice social distancing.

“This means that @ICEgov will continue to prioritize arresting and removing [undocumented immigrants] and other [immigrants] who pose a threat to public safety, just as it always has during President DonaldTrump's administration,” Cuccinelli wrote on Twitter. “That does not mean that no other removable [undocumented immigrants] will in fact be removed, but during the current public health situation, removals will be done in such a way as to minimize the exposure of our agents and of the removable [immigrants] we are encountering.”

In a previous statement the day before, the agency said it would only “focus enforcement on public safety risks and individuals subject to mandatory detention based on criminal grounds.” It also noted that due to the coronavirus pandemic, also known as COVID-19, the agency will not arrest anyone at or near health care facilities like hospitals, doctors’ offices or urgent care clinics “except in the most extraordinary of circumstances.”

"For those individuals who do not fall into those categories, [ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations] will exercise discretion to delay enforcement actions until after the crisis or utilize alternatives to detention, as appropriate," the agency previously said.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) slammed Cuccinelli’s response, calling his statement foolish. As of March 19, there are a total of 237,996 confirmed COVID-19 cases across the world and nearly 10,000 deaths, according to John Hopkins University.

“This foolish statement will jeopardize the health and security of all of us. Rather than heeding public health experts’ calls to ensure individuals are not afraid to access care, Cuccinelli appears to want to sabotage our nation’s response to this pandemic. ICE should immediately suspend any enforcement activities that could deter individuals from accessing care,” said Andrea Flores, deputy director of the ACLU’s equality division, in a statement received by The North Star.

“People and their families must feel safe to leave their homes and seek medical help or gather the necessary supplies to keep their families safe, regardless of immigration status. If ICE doesn’t give people that assurance, it puts everyone in more danger,” she continued.

In light of ICE’s actions, immigration advocates are continuing to demand that ICE releases immigrants in detention centers who are at high risk of serious illness in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

More Action Demanded

On March 16, the ACLU and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) filed a lawsuit against ICE on behalf of detained immigrants at Tacoma Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington. The suit demands that the agency release detained immigrants in ICE custody based on age and underlying medical conditions that public health officials believe could increase their risk of contracting the coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that people who are at a higher risk for severe illness include older people and people with underlying diseases like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease.

“Immigrant detention centers are institutions that uniquely heighten the danger of disease transmission. In normal circumstances, ICE has proven time and again that it is unable to protect the health and safety of detained people. These are not normal circumstances, and the heightened risk of serious harm to people in detention from COVID-19 is clear,” said Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project, in a statement.

“Public health experts have warned that failing to reduce the number of people detained — and in particular, failing to release those particularly vulnerable to the disease — endangers the lives of everyone in the detention facility, including staff, and the broader community,” Cho continued.

Following the horrifying news of an apparent suicide of an immigrant detainee at Karnes detention center, RAICES Texas said in a tweet on March 19 that many detainees are concerned about contracting the virus. The organization also demanded that it release immigrant detainees.

“A number of detainees in recent days have told us how frightened they are to be locked in detention as the coronavirus spreads throughout the country,” the organization tweeted. “We demand that ICE release all immigrant detainees immediately.”

In Newark, New Jersey, ICE detainees at the Essex County Jail have gone on a hunger strike in an effort to be released on bond because they are scared of contracting the virus, Gothamist reported. There have been at least 10 detainees who are refusing to eat meals to grab the attention of ICE officials and send them a message.

“If we get sick, at least we’d be able to be with our families before we die,” Julio Calcas, 55, told Gothamist. “I’m hoping it doesn’t come to that.”

How to help

Below is a list of organizations that have advocated for the release of immigrant detainees at ICE detention centers. Click on the links to learn more on how to help:

At the end of each story we publish about the coronavirus, we are now sharing the following information:

Coronavirus 411

Coronavirus, officially named SARS-CoV-2 but also known as COVID-19, is a novel virus that causes a number of respiratory illnesses, including lung lesions and pneumonia. The virus spreads easily from person to person through the air when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes.

COVID-19, which originated in Wuhan, China, has spread to some 147 countries. More than 229,000 people around the world have become infected and more than 9,000 people have died. On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a worldwide pandemic. President Donald Trump declared the COVID-19 outbreak a national emergency on March 13.

Symptoms of COVID-19 can take between two to 14 days to appear. The CDC recommends calling your doctor if you think you have been exposed to COVID-19 and develop symptoms, including fever, cough and difficulty breathing. If you also experience persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion or inability to arouse and bluish lips or face, seek medical attention immediately.

In order to keep yourself and others safe, be sure to wash your hands frequently, practice social distancing and avoid touching your face. The CDC is recommending that gatherings of 50 people or more be canceled for the next eight weeks. Click here for information on how to prepare for a quarantine.