As the coronavirus spreads quickly across the country, immigrant advocates and attorneys are calling on ICE to release vulnerable people from detention. Unlike prison officials, who have to hold inmates on judges' orders, ICE has the authority to release detained immigrants awaiting deportation or asylum hearings.
"Our association is engaging with ICE to talk about enforcement ops during this horrible period of time, about using its own bond and parole authority to release individuals, especially those that are at risk — elderly, or individuals that have compromised immune systems," said Jeremy McKinney, Second Vice President of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
ICE announced last week that it will "delay enforcement actions" and use "alternatives to detention" except for those who are being detained on criminal grounds or pose a public safety risk.
For now, ICE is holding around 40,000 immigrants in more than 130 facilities nationwide — including in local jails and private prisons. The agency says there are no confirmed cases of coronavirus among detainees, though a medical staff member at a New Jersey facility tested positive last week. It's unclear how many detainees have been tested.
ICE says on its website that it screens all new detainees, consults with local health departments to assess the need for testing, and isolates "detainees with fever and/or respiratory symptoms."
Besides a decrease in detention population, advocates demand the full suspension of detainee transfers to avoid population mixing.
"If they are not going to be released, then you can at least temporarily eliminate the transfers because again, every movement exposes that detainee to more and more people," McKinney said.
Separately, around 3,600 immigrant minors are in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement or ORR. These children either crossed the U.S.-Mexico border alone or were separated from adults there. They remain in government shelters until they can be placed with "sponsors," often family members already residing in the U.S.
ORR told Newsy on Monday that three staff members at two facilities in New York recently tested positive for coronavirus. So far, the agency says, no children in its shelters have contracted the virus. It says only 12 have been tested and seven are waiting test results.