Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf on Wednesday did not specifically say whether U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would consider releasing detainees who are at heightened risk for the coronavirus.
“In some cases, we do need to do that for the health and safety and wellbeing of those detainees but again that’s a case-by-case basis,” he said in response to a reporter’s question during the White House Coronavirus Task Force’s daily press briefing at the White House. “We’re not going to make any blanket statement that we’re going to release individuals or whole groups at a time.”
ICE continues to face calls to release detainees with HIV and others with compromised immune systems as the coronavirus spreads rapidly throughout the country. ICE, which falls under the Department of Homeland Security, maintains it is taking the necessary precautions to protect those who are in its custody.
Visitation at all ICE detention centers has been suspended. Lawyers, lawmakers and/or members of their staff who visit an ICE detention center are now required to wear disposable gloves, marks and eye protection.
“The health, welfare and safety of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees is one of the agency’s highest priorities,” reads ICE’s website. “Since the onset of reports of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), ICE epidemiologists have been tracking the outbreak, regularly updating infection prevention and control protocols, and issuing guidance to ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC) staff for the screening and management of potential exposure among detainees.”
“ICE continues to incorporate CDC’s COVID-19 guidance, which is built upon the already established infectious disease monitoring and management protocols currently in use by the agency,” it adds. “In addition, ICE is actively working with state and local health partners to determine if any detainee requires additional testing or monitoring to combat the spread of the virus.”
Wolf on Wednesday reiterated this point.
“In the case of COVID we’re looking at vulnerable populations and again ICE is doing that in conjunction with CDC and other medical professionals,” he said.
ICE on its website notes two detainees at the Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, N.J., two detainees at the Hudson County Jail in Kearny, N.J., one detainee at the Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark, N.J., and one detainee at La Palma Correctional Facility in Eloy, Ariz., have tested positive for the coronavirus. There are also five confirmed cases among ICE personnel who work at detention centers in New Jersey, Colorado and Texas.
Trans Queer Pueblo, a Phoenix-based group that advocates on behalf of undocumented LGBTQ immigrants, says ICE on March 23 released five LGBTQ asylum seekers who had been detained at La Palma Correctional Facility and at the Eloy Detention Center, which is also in Eloy, Ariz. Yariel Valdés González, a Washington and Los Angeles Blade contributor from Cuba, was released from ICE custody on March 4, nearly a year after he asked for asylum in the U.S.
Two federal judges in recent days have ordered the release of more than 20 detainees with underlying medical conditions who are in ICE custody in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. A federal judge in Seattle on March 19 ruled against the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Washington and the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project who demanded ICE release detainees at the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., who are “at high risk for serious illness or death in the event of COVID-19 infection.”
Immigration Equality, the Trans Latin@ Coalition and other immigrant advocacy groups last week demanded ICE release of LGBTQ detainees at the Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana.
The organizations in their letter to Wolf, Acting ICE Director Matthew Albence and other officials said the privately-run detention center’s staff have not taken the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The letter also describes “widespread abuse and mistreatment of LGBTQI/HIV+ individuals” that includes inconsistent access to antiretroviral drugs and anti-LGBTQ harassment from staff.
This article originally appeared in the Washington Blade and is made available in partnership with the National LGBT Media Association.