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Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is releasing hundreds of illegal immigrants from detention as part of the ongoing effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus -- and as Democrats and immigrant activist groups call for the mass release of those in custody.
Acting Deputy Homeland Security Director Ken Cuccinelli said Tuesday that 693 immigrants in custody have been identified for release, due to being more vulnerable to the virus and its effects. He noted that ICE has a long history of dealing with people coming across the border with infectious diseases, but this is an “unprecedented” situation.
“As a special response to this particular crisis, ICE has instructed its field offices to further assess for the purpose of considering releases of certain individuals deemed to be at greater risk of exposure,” he told reporters.
The first round, of which about 160 were released, consisted of those over 60 or pregnant. But then the agency did a top-to-bottom review of all those in custody and identified hundreds more from broader categories who could be released -- including those with lung or other related conditions.
“ICE continues to reevaluate all individuals in custody who make up vulnerable populations and they’ve been modifying practices based on recommendations of the CDC,” Cuccinelli said.
Cuccinelli said that when working out who to release, officials also considered a broad range of other factors including immigration history, any criminal record, the potential threat to public safety, potential flight risk and any national security risks.
As a nod to concerns that releasing immigrants into the public could increase the risk to the public at large, Cuccinelli said that ICE not only gives migrants regular health assessments, but it also practices cohorting -- whereby those who have been exposed to a symptomatic detainee are cohorted as a group for the duration of the incubation period.
The 693 is only a sliver of the approximately 34,000 illegal immigrants in ICE detention across the country, but represents one of a number of measures law enforcement is taking to protect the public, those in custody and law enforcement from the virus.
While left-wing groups and Democrats have been calling for releases of immigrants because of COVID, they are unlikely to be happy with such a relatively small number. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., on Monday introduced a bill that would release "most" illegal immigrants in custody.
“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 in a statement. “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."
Notably, under that bill, released illegal immigrants would not return to detention once the emergency has ended unless there was a determination that an individual was a public threat or a flight risk.
The Trump administration has given no indication that it is considering anything but a limited release of migrants specifically at risk of COVID-19. Those who are released will be given alternatives to detention, which could include restrictions such as ankle bracelets.
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials said that so far there are no deaths in custody or among releases of the disease -- and emphasized that enforcement actions against those in the country illegally are continuing, including deportation flights.