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Lawmakers write that ICE has “actively argued for the re-detention of people previously released by court order solely due to the availability of vaccines and decreased community spread, not as a result of an individualized determination of public safety threat or ability to comply with the terms of release.” Yes, vaccine availability has vastly improved outside (for example, Walgreen’s is extending pharmacy hours to accommodate walk-in shots), but that’s not the case inside. As previously noted, ICE still has no national vaccination plan for detained immigrants.
“While vaccines are readily available in communities throughout the United States, as of May 7, 2021, less than seven percent of people detained in ICE custody nationwide had received COVID-19 vaccines,” lawmakers continued. “COVID-19 outbreaks continue to spread in detention facilities across the country,” and recent complaints filed by detained immigrants attest that conditions continue to remain dangerous.
“In a report released in January 2021, researchers with the Physicians for Human Rights found that immigrants in ICE custody were denied access to even ‘the most basic COVID-19 prevention measures, such as soap for hand washing, and were retaliated against for raising safety concerns’ while the pandemic spread through numerous detention facilities,” the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) said in a complaint filed last month with the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. “The report concluded that ICE created ‘unacceptable health risks and violated constitutional and human rights during the pandemic,’ which is ongoing.”
“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, and that no one is re-detained solely as a result of our nation’s recovery from the pandemic,” lawmakers wrote in their letter. (A full list of signatories is here.) “In addition, we request that DHS and ICE ensure that health and safety measures, releases from custody, and vaccination protocols are reviewed, improved, and enacted at detention facilities to ensure robust protections for those that remain detained.”
Lawmakers said that leading organizations have endorsed their call, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Detention Watch Network, and NIJC.
NIJC Director of Policy Heidi Altman said that “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. We echo the call to ICE to ensure that those granted their freedom during their pandemic do not have it brutally taken away again.”
“Over the course of COVID-19 pandemic, ICE agreed to release thousands of people from detention to shelter in the safety of their homes,” said ACLU National Prison Project Senior Staff Attorney Eunice Cho. “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. 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.”