Members of Congress recently have joined the chorus of immigrant activists calling for restrictions on immigration detention in light of the COVID-19 crisis. This is the very worst time to do something like this.
On March 18, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) adjusted its enforcement operations to focus “on public-safety risks and individuals subject to mandatory detention based on criminal grounds.” The agency stated it would exercise discretion to delay enforcement actions for other aliens until after the COVID-19 crisis has passed. In addition, ICE has already identified 693 aliens “at risk” and up for release, beginning with 160 people older than 60 or pregnant.
Aliens in detention have access to medical care and treatment under the standards ICE revised in 2016. Detainees receive a medical screening when they’re brought in, and have access to treatment thereafter. ICE has also implemented its 2014 pandemic plan, under which detainees are tested for the virus under CDC guidelines. Anyone with the disease is isolated and provided treatment. Others who may have been exposed are housed separately to ensure they aren’t ill and don’t spread the illness further. Cleaning and sanitation products are provided to staff and detainees.
Turning those aliens loose in the community risks them being exposed to COVID-19 in an environment where they do not have the same limitations on movement and access to medical attention or hygiene products. Most, when they fall ill, will turn to local emergency rooms, risking spread and further burdening taxed (and vulnerable) community health workers.
Notably, ICE and its contractors have a vested interest in complying with these standards, both to protect detainees and staff and to ensure the agency’s vital detention efforts can continue. The importance of detention largely has been ignored and generally lost in the current debate.
Remember, ICE detention serves two purposes: to ensure that aliens ordered removed are actually deported from the country and to protect the community from aliens who pose a public safety risk.
The first purpose, which promotes enforcement of U.S. immigration laws, consequently discourages foreign nationals abroad from entering the country illegally. In this crisis, we need to better guarantee that unscreened aliens, some of whom may introduce COVID-19 into communities throughout the country, do not enter illegally. At a time when governors are restricting the travel of their citizens across state lines, and “advis[ing]” certain travelers from specific areas not to visit their states, the importance of this national effort is obvious.
The second purpose, now as always, protects all residents in communities across our country—citizens and aliens—from criminals who would threaten their safety and dignity. Given the fact that our first responders themselves are already at risk and strained in responding to the outbreak, we want to prevent criminals—including criminal aliens—from exploiting the current crisis.
In Fiscal Year 2019, 86 percent of all of the aliens arrested by ICE had criminal arrests or convictions. That included 7,757 aliens convicted of burglary, 26,156 of assault, 4,658 of sex offenses, 3,581 of robbery, 1,110 of kidnapping, and 1,549 of homicide. This is not even counting those who were merely arrested for such crimes.
Detaining such people during a pandemic should be common sense, but it is not. An editorial in the UNC independent student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, argued “the biggest present threat to public safety would be ICE agents”—whom it identifies as “vectors who could spread coronavirus”—and “not undocumented immigrants” themselves, concluding (illogically) that those officers should not receive N95 surgical masks.
I am not singling this student paper out—it’s just that its position reflects the opinions of many, including some in power. And that opinion is simply wrong.