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Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Wednesday that it will temporarily halt some of its deportation efforts amid the coronavirus pandemic, except for those deemed a safety risk or under mandatory deportation order due to criminal history.
The delay is intended to help mitigate the spread of the virus and to encourage people to seek testing and treatment, ICE said in a statement.
“During the COVID-19 crisis, ICE will not carry out enforcement operations at or near health care facilities, such as hospitals, doctors’ offices, accredited health clinics, and emergent or urgent care facilities, except in the most extraordinary of circumstances,” the agency said. “Individuals should not avoid seeking medical care because they fear civil immigration enforcement.”
The statement added the agency would seek alternatives to detention but didn’t say what might happen to the approximately 37,000 current immigration detainees, The Washington Post reported.
The agency said it would continue critical investigations into child exploitation, gangs, narcotics trafficking, human trafficking and terrorism.
On Thursday, Acting Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Ken Cuccinelli clarified the statement in light of what he called "widespread misreporting."
"The health and safety of Americans is paramount. Thus, ICE will, as it has during other times of crisis, conduct enforcement operations that protect our communities and uphold our laws. This means that ICE will continue to prioritize arresting and removing criminal aliens and other aliens who pose a threat to public safety, just as it always has during President Trump’s administration," he said.
"That does not mean that no other removable aliens will in fact be removed, but during the current public health situation, removals will be done in such a way as to minimize the exposure of our agents and of the removable aliens we are encountering," he said. "ICE will exercise its law enforcement authority in a manner that accounts for the dangers presented by COVID-19, while maintaining the safety and security of the communities it has sworn to protect.”
Immigration advocates have urged ICE to release detainees who could be at a higher risk for contracting the virus due to cramped quarters, according to the Post.
As of Tuesday, no detainees had yet tested positive for the virus.
All immigration hearings have also been halted except for those already detained, according to The Post.
“ICE's highest priorities are to promote life-saving and public safety activities,” the statement added.