“We look forward to seeing as many immigrants as possible released from detention—not just those with no criminal charges or convictions, but all who pose no public-safety risk.”
Every aspect of normal life has been infected by coronavirus, and government agencies have scrambled to put together a response. Late to the table was US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which announced some changes to its operations late-Wednesday night after almost a week of relentless media inquiries.
Attorneys and immigrants seem most concerned about enforcement operations and the conditions of prisoners in detention. Panic arose last week about whether it would be safe for immigrants to seek medical care when a man from Honduras was arrested by ICE at a Pennsylvania hospital last Thursday. The agency said this happens in only “extraordinary circumstances.”
ICE said that daily enforcement operations for civil and criminal arrests will continue, but they will prioritize individuals who “threaten our national security and public safety.” This will return enforcement operations to the Obama-era “felons not families” approach. The agency is also suspending social visitation in all detention facilities to mitigate spread of COVID-19. In Massachusetts, that includes Bristol and Plymouth counties, both of which have contracts with ICE to detain immigrants. Attorneys are still able to make visits. As of January, there were a little more than 300 immigrants being held at those jails.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts has urged ICE to take measures to protect detainees incarcerated at county jails, asking the agency to align its practices with public health officials mitigating the pandemic. Legal director Matthew Segal said ICE has taken “steps in the right direction” by curbing enforcement and using alternative means to detention.
“These directives are an important move towards allowing families and communities to seek help and medical care without the threat of deportation and family separation,” he told DigBoston. “More must still be done to both prioritize public health, including reducing the number of people currently detained and ensuring that immigration detainees have adequate and free access to health care and hygiene products.”
When it comes to protecting immigrants in its custody, ICE says detainees who meet CDC criteria for risk of exposure to COVID-19, and those with fever or respiratory symptoms are housed separately from the general population.
“ICE transports individuals with moderate to severe symptoms, or those who require higher levels of care or monitoring, to appropriate hospitals with expertise in high risk care,” the agency said in an emailed statement.
Susan Church of Cambridge-based firm Demissie & Church has many clients in immigrant detention, and said that while this move is encouraging, it’s not enough.
“My clients have a problem because I cannot go to the jails,” Church explained. “I have a family member with chemo, leukemia, diabetes and over 62 who lives with us.”
“I have been asking them [clients] to think about whether they would rather spend another month in jail in the hopes of me being able to properly prepare them in the jail by an in-person visit versus going forward with all phone prep.”
The Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Coalition said that the enforcement announcement is “welcome news,” but it’s unclear how this will work out for those who have been charged with minor crimes but have not been convicted. In Mass, this includes driving without a license, which can be common among undocumented immigrants.
“Similarly, we look forward to seeing as many immigrants as possible released from detention—not just those with no criminal charges or convictions, but all who pose no public-safety risk, which would be a large majority,” said Executive Director Eva Millona. “Jails should be holding as few people as possible right now, for the sake of both inmates and staff.”
The only precautionary measure the agency released before last night was that it would start conducting all required, immigration check-ins for people not in detention via phone for New England’s ICE office, which is located in Burlington, Massachusetts.
ICE’s announcement comes after a union of its own prosecutors joined forces with immigration attorneys and judges to temporarily shut down immigration courts.
As of Thursday, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in ICE detention facilities, but several courthouses nationwide, including Boston, have reported having someone with or exposed to COVID-19 pass through them. And since detainees are still being brought to their hearings in person, they can carry the virus back to their county jails.
And it’s no secret that jails are overcrowded. Even with visitation limitations, guards still enter the building bringing whatever they carry with them. Concerns over this were brought to light on Tuesday by US Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who called for a reduction in the detained immigrant population, especially for those with already existing medical conditions.
“We must also end mandatory detention and family separation, horrendous policies that have led to the overcrowded and deplorable conditions found in ICE and CBP detention facilities and make those in detention vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19,” the congresswoman wrote.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.
Sarah is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal.