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[WASHINGTON, DC] – Following a growing number of immigrants in federal custody testing positive for COVID-19, U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) unveiled new legislation, called the Federal Immigrant Release for Safety and Security Together (FIRST) Act, that would move immigrants out of detention and halt immigration enforcement against individuals not deemed a significant public safety risk during the COVID-19 pandemic and future public health emergencies. 

Jayapal is the Vice Chair of House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship and the Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Booker is a member of Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Border Security and Immigration.

“The federal government is entirely responsible for the safety and wellbeing of immigrants in detention centers and Congress must ensure that ICE is heeding critical public health guidance and keeping immigrants and our communities safe from infection,” Jayapal said. “By reducing the number of people held in ICE detention centers and making sure those who remain in detention have access to needed soap and proper hygiene products, the FIRST Act reduces the risk of spreading disease and protects immigrants and our public health. We are in the midst of a public health crisis that has upended all of our daily lives, and we have a moral obligation to look out for the most vulnerable people among us.”

“Detention centers are like a ticking time bomb – they are severely at risk for a COVID-19 outbreak, considering the close quarters in which detainees are housed and a population with much higher rates of underlying health issues,” Booker said. “We have an obligation to do everything we can to prevent the spread of this deadly disease, and that means moving people out of detention centers when they do not pose a public safety risk. This is really a matter of life and death: it’s time that we act quickly and decisively to save as many lives as possible, and that means ending the unnecessary detention of immigrants during this public health crisis.”

“I felt insecure in the jail. You were hearing things, seeing things on the news, but you don’t see the jail staff doing anything different. You would ask for things—cleaning supplies, masks, soap, hand sanitizer, and none was provided. I’m worried because there’s a lot of people still in there who feel like they can do nothing. Some people left kids, and the kids got take into foster care, so they can’t talk to their kids right now. [The prison is] just not the place to be when you’ve got family outside, it’s terrifying,” said Marco Milian, a client of the National Immigrant Justice Center who was released from ICE custody in Illinois on April 2, 2020.

“I support this bill because it is necessary now but also because something could happen in two years and people should not be at risk.  Why hold on to us when you are putting our lives at risk?  What I experienced when I was detained was unfair, I thought I was being punished.  We already had a lot to worry about with our cases and we shouldn’t have to worry about being at risk of dying.  I don’t want others to have to go through what I went through.  This is not about immigrant rights—it is about human rights,” said Karlena Dawson, a client of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project who was released from the Northwest ICE Processing Center until March 30, after being detained since February 2019.

Under the FIRST Act, individuals moved out of immigration detention would not be forced to return to detention once the public health emergency has lifted unless an individualized determination is made that the person is a threat to public safety or alternatives to detention are insufficient to guarantee attendance at immigration proceedings.

The bill would also modify in-person reporting requirements, suspend collateral arrests, make telephone calls and video-conferencing available for detained immigrants free of charge (since in-person visits have been temporarily suspended), and ensure that soap, hand sanitizer, and other necessary hygiene products are provided free of charge to immigrants in detention (recent reports have revealed that these basic sanitation supplies are not being provided at many detention centers across the country). Full text of the bill is available here.

Despite reports that ICE would alter enforcement priorities as the country grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, officials within the Department of Homeland Security have sent mixed signals about how enforcement priorities will be modified to address the crisis. It’s estimated that roughly 37,000 immigrants are detained nationally, with about 1,200 located in New Jersey and 700 in Washington state. According to data released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), 72 immigrants have tested positive nationally.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, the bill is cosponsored by U.S. Representatives Earl Blumenauer, Tony Cárdenas, Judy Chu, Adriano Espaillat, Chuy García, Sylvia R. Garcia, Alcee L. Hastings, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Henry C. “Hank” Johnson, Jr., Zoe Lofgren, James P. McGovern, Gwen Moore, Jerrold Nadler, Ilhan Omar, Mark Pocan, Mike Quigley, Bobby L. Rush, Jan Schakowsky, Adam Smith, Rashida Tlaib, Nydia M. Velázquez, Peter Welch.

In the U.S. Senate, the bill is cosponsored by U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Mazie Hirono.

The bill is also endorsed by more than 60 organizations, including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and Detention Watch Network.

“As we mobilize nationally to preserve life during this global pandemic, abandoning those in detention facilities is not only immoral, but also a threat to our collective health. We support Senator Booker and Congresswoman Jayapal’s introduction of the FIRST Act, which offers the commonsense solution of releasing vulnerable detainees who do not pose a public safety risk, and urge Congress to pass this legislation quickly.” said Vanita Gupta, president and chief executive officer of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

“We are grateful to Representative Jayapal and Senator Booker for leading this effort to protect the health and safety of community members in immigration detention during a public health emergency. People should not be faced with a potential death sentence because they are pursuing an asylum case or seeking an opportunity to remain in the United States. We urge other senators and representatives to join this effort and to ensure that this bill will be enacted into law. It’s a matter of basic human rights,” said Jorge L. Barón, executive director, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.

“I wake up every day afraid for my clients’ lives, because if nothing changes, people in detention—and people who work there—will die. Nobody deserves to get sick just because they are waiting for their day in court. ICE’s choice not to release as many people from immigration detention as possible, as soon as possible, puts everyone in our community in danger,” said Dorien Ediger-Seto, senior attorney with National Immigrant Justice Center’s San Diego project.

“Thousands of doctors and hundreds of advocates have been urgently sounding the alarm since early March to release all people from immigration detention, a system notorious for its fatally flawed medical care and abysmal conditions that only worsen in times of crisis. ICE can and should release everyone from immigration detention now — The FIRST Act takes a necessary and bold step in this direction by requiring the release of people at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 and requiring file reviews with a presumption of release for everyone else. It is the consensus of public health officials that it is safer for our collective health for people to be treated in community rather than in a detention center, where infectious disease is known to thrive and social distancing is impossible,” said Setareh Ghandehari, Advocacy Manager of Detention Watch Network.

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