Lawmakers urge ICE, CBP to release thousands of immigrants amid coronavirus pandemic

“We’re calling on ICE to act now ... because we know that people will die if we don’t take action,” said Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.).

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In this July 8, 2019, file photo, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer looks on during an operation in Escondido, Calif.

Lawmakers want people awaiting initial immigration court hearings released from ICE custody to slow the spread of COVID-19.

AP Photos

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and legal advocates called on federal authorities Tuesday to release thousands of immigrants being held in detention centers and county jails nationwide to cull the spread of the coronavirus.

About 38,000 immigrants are in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and several thousands more are being held at facilities near the country’s borders by Customs and Border Protection.

All of those immigrants are being held on civil matters —namely, entering or residing in the United States without proper authorization — and are either waiting for their day in immigration court or have already been ordered deported.

ICE and CPB should release immigrants who are awaiting to go in front of a judge and pose no threat to public safety to prevent the disease from spreading throughout the tight confines of detention centers, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, told reporters Tuesday.

“Thankfully, we’ve seen some judges order the release of a handful of vulnerable immigrants in custody. It also appears that ICE has been quietly releasing a few immigrants in some detention facilities, but this simply isn’t enough,” he said.

So far, there are fourconfirmed cases of COVID-19 among those in ICE custody along with five confirmed cases among ICE employees and personnel working in detention facilities. BuzzFeed News reports ICE is monitoring 63 detainees in 22 detention facilities.

Lawmakers suspect those numbers will rise dramatically as immigrants in detention facilities aren’t able to practice adequate social distancing.

“We’re calling on ICE to act now ... because we know that people will die if we don’t take action,” said Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), who heads the caucus’ task force on immigration.

Detention centers are routinely criticized for not providing adequate medical care for immigrants. Ten immigrants have died while in ICE custody since October and seven children have died in CPB custody or shortly after being released, “many after receiving delayed medical care or being denied care altogether,” according to the ACLU.

“We know that detention centers do not have the sanitary conditions required to contain the potential outbreak of coronavirus inside their facilities,” said Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (D-Ill.).

Tania Linares Garcia, a senior attorney with the National Immigrant Justice Center, said one of her clients — a young man who’s lived in Chicago for most of his life and is being held at a detention center in Wisconsin —suffers from anxiety “and really isn’t doing well right now.”

“There’s no way for him to protect himself — no access to gloves, masks, anything to keep his living quarters clean. He feels like a sitting duck.”

Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West sides.

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