Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s acting director told a House committee last week that the agency wouldn’t be releasing any more detainees beyond the few hundred it has freed so far due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, but a new court decision may force that to change. In a new ruling, a federal judge ordered ICE to “identify and track” all people “at heightened risk of severe illness and death upon contracting the COVID-19 virus” for possible release, including people over 55, pregnant people, and people with chronic medical illnesses like HIV.
U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal’s ruling on Monday wasn’t just sweeping, it was blistering, blasting the agency for its slow reaction to the pandemic and “callous indifference to the safety and wellbeing” of detained people. “At this stage of the pandemic, the threat is even clearer,” he continued in the ruling. “The number of immigration detainees testing positive for COVID-19 continues to increase at an alarming rate.”
The ruling comes as the mass deportation agency says it has tested only around 300 people out of the more than 32,000 currently in detention, and of those tested, more than a third have been confirmed positive. There’s also indications that ICE is actively trying to fudge novel coronavirus numbers, by not reporting when third-party contractors test positive, and by dumping detainees at hospitals so that they’re not included in the agency’s official tally of in-custody cases.
“Although the agency could immediately release thousands of individuals in its custody to preserve public health in the face of the pandemic, it has refused to do so,” the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the groups that sued, said in a statement. Instead, ICE officials are keeping them jailed in facilities like Aurora Contract Detention Facility in Colorado, which the court’s document said took “few steps to prepare for COVID-19.”
“Up to eighty people live in a dorm,” the document said. “The dorm consists of four- to eight-person cells, where it is ‘impossible to stay away from other people.’ Detainees do not have access to hand sanitizer, have not been tested for COVID-19, have no access to masks, and have not changed cleaning procedures. Eighty detainees share a single sink with a timed faucet that only stays on for a few seconds and that has low water pressure. According to another detainee’s report, the only guaranteed way to get bar soap is to buy it for $3 at commissary.”
“Until now, ICE has consistently failed to provide even the most basic public health protections inside detention centers,” SPLC said. “Its failure to take preventative measures—like providing adequate soap and hand sanitizer—puts individuals with underlying conditions in imminent danger of infection and death.” Among those in danger are thousands of asylum-seekers that officials refuse to release, the House Oversight Committee said.
“I feel so happy about this judge’s decision because I met so many people inside who were in really poor conditions and really need to be released,” AJ Sanchez-Martinez, a recently released plaintiff, said in the statement. “I used to tell people, ‘what you see in here from ICE is the worst of America,’” he continued. “ICE had time to act, and it failed,” said Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director of the SPLC. “Fortunately, the court has ordered ICE to do what it should have done long ago: take appropriate measures to reduce risk to medically vulnerable individuals, or free them.” We know what the right thing to do is: free them.