Washington, D.C. — Federal immigration officials have been slow to follow the lead of some local jurisdictions that have adopted smart policies to divert people away from crowded jails and detention facilities in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, a new column released today by the Center for American Progress argues.
In February, medical experts warned that the response to the coronavirus pandemic should not leave out the nation’s 5,000 prisons, jails, and immigration detention facilities, as such facilities are at high risk for spreading infection. Some district attorneys and local law enforcement have implemented policies that safely reduce jail populations, including by releasing pretrial detainees and individuals who are at heightened risk of serious health complications and by refusing to arrest people for minor charges. However, federal immigration officials have not been fast enough to replicate these policies.
“Federal immigration officials must take action now to help flatten the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not doing so is irresponsible and jeopardizes the lives of detained persons as well as the general public,” says Tom Jawetz, vice president of Immigration Policy at CAP. “DHS needs to follow the lead of smart local leaders who are currently putting public health at the forefront of their criminal justice policies.”
To date, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) still hasn’t issued a formal statement suspending immigration enforcement activities at or near health care facilities, hospitals, or testing or quarantine sites. The department also hasn’t taken apparent steps to avoid unnecessarily taking people into custody or holding them in detention, including individuals likely to experience serious health consequences associated with a novel coronavirus infection.
To help mitigate community spread of COVID-19, the CAP column recommends that immigration enforcement officials take the following actions:
- Issue a formal public statement prohibiting certain U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or Customs and Border Protection (CBP) immigration enforcement actions: DHS must provide specific guidance on COVID-19 assuring the public that promoting life and health are the department’s highest priorities at this time. Enforcement actions at or near health care facilities should be suspended entirely, as should enforcement at interior U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints that serve to cut off undocumented immigrants and their children from accessing necessary medical care.
- Reduce immigration arrests and focus exclusively on significant public safety threats: DHS should focus detention resources exclusively on individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety and refrain from detaining lower priority individuals, replicating what some jurisdictions have done. As in the criminal justice system, where police are increasingly being encouraged to issue citations for low-level offenses, ICE officers could issue charging documents against individuals that they encounter where detention would be inadvisable under the circumstances.
- Release vulnerable and low-risk detainees from custody: ICE should review detainee records and begin to release from custody—by granting parole and stipulating to bond requests, for instance—all individuals who pose no significant threat to the public, prioritizing those who are at risk of significant health consequences should they become infected, including older individuals; those with heart or lung disease, diabetes, or compromised immune systems; and pregnant detainees.
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