The lawmakers tell DHS that, “re-detaining individuals solely as a result of our nation’s recovery from the pandemic is unacceptable.”
WASHINGTON — U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal (WA-07) led dozens of lawmakers today in calling on DHS and ICE to refrain from re-detaining individuals who were previously released due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The lawmakers also urged DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and ICE Acting Director Tae Johnson to ensure that health and safety measures, vaccination protocols, and additional releases from custody are reviewed, improved, and enacted at facilities across America to ensure robust health protections for those who have remained in detention centers.
“Re-detaining individuals solely as a result of our nation’s recovery from the pandemic is unacceptable,” said the lawmakers. “We respectfully request that DHS and ICE take prompt action to ensure that there is a clear policy regarding individuals who have been released from detention due to COVID-19. We also call for critical protections, including access to vaccines and the continued release of people from custody. These steps are vital to fulfilling your obligations to protect the health and safety of people in ICE custody, ICE staff, and the families who live in the communities where ICE detention centers exist.”
The lawmakers’ call to action comes at a moment when ICE’s position regarding the re-detention of people released due to the pandemic has been inconsistent across Field Offices. This has caused immense uncertainty for formerly detained individuals. As cases of the deadly virus spiked across the country last year, federal courts ordered ICE to release thousands of people from custody. The overwhelming majority of these individuals are now living safely at home with their families, with clear improvements to their health. They are also providing valuable support to their communities and loved ones, in compliance with the terms of their release and while posing no danger to the community.
COVID-19 has spread rapidly throughout ICE detention facilities over the last year. As of the end of May, over 16,000 immigrants have contracted COVID-19 in detention, and at least nine detained people have died after contracting COVID-19 in ICE custody. The prevalence of COVID-19 in ICE detention facilities is also 20 times greater than in the general public, and five times greater than in prisons. Additionally, less than seven percent of people detained in ICE custody nationwide have received COVID-19 vaccines.
Last Congress, Representative Jayapal introduced the FIRST Act, which would have responded to the public health crisis by moving immigrants out of detention facilities. This legislation also ensured that individuals released from detention during the pandemic would not be forced to return to detention solely as a result of the public health emergency ending.
Today’s call to action is endorsed by national organizations including the ACLU, National Immigrant Justice Center, and Detention Watch Network.
“Over the course of COVID-19 pandemic, ICE agreed to release thousands of people from detention to shelter in the safety of their homes. ICE also reduced the number of people in ICE detention from more than 56,000 each day to just over 13,000. This dramatic reduction underscores an important truth: Immigration detention has been overused for decades,” said the ACLU National Prison Project’s Sr. Staff Attorney, Eunice Cho. “Now, as the country works to move past the pandemic, we hope the government will choose a just, humane approach and allow people who were released to remain free with their families and communities. That is the country we aspire to be.”
“ICE detention is a dangerous place for anyone, and never more so than during the pandemic. NIJC clients continue to report that they have inadequate access to soap and that COVID-19 precautions taken by ICE and guards are frighteningly insufficient,” said National Immigrant Justice Center Director of Policy, Heidi Altman. “We echo the call to ICE to ensure that those granted their freedom during their pandemic do not have it brutally taken away again.”
The letter is signed by U.S. Representatives Pramila Jayapal, Alma Adams, PhD, Jamaal Bowman, Ed.D., Tony Cárdenas, Judy Chu, David N. Cicilline, Gerald E. Connolly, Jim Cooper, Danny K. Davis, Suzan DelBene, Adriano Espaillat, Bill Foster, Jesús G. “Chuy” García, Raul M. Grijalva, Sheila Jackson Lee, Sara Jacobs, Henry C. “Hank” Johnson, Jr., Ro Khanna, Ann Kirkpatrick, Rick Larsen, Brenda L. Lawrence, Barbara Lee, Andy Levin, Grace Meng, James P. McGovern, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Frank Pallone, Jr., Mark Pocan, Ayanna Pressley, Jan Schakowsky, Adam Smith, Mark Takano, Ritchie Torres, Juan Vargas, Nydia M. Velázquez, Bonnie Watson Coleman, and Frederica S. Wilson.
The text of the letter is available here.