ICE urged to release detainees at COVID-19 risk

A woman stands on top of a car with a sign.
Nickey Robo stands on top of a vehicle holding a sign to demand the release of prisoners and ICE detainees because of the COVID-19 pandemic during a protest outside of the governor's mansion in St. Paul on Friday, March 27, 2020.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Immigrant rights advocates are calling on state and federal officials to release hundreds of detainees from immigration detention during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Community organizations kicked off a week of action with a fast outside Gov. Tim Walz’s residence and described their concerns during a virtual press event Tuesday. They say overcrowding, inadequate medical care, lack of soap and sanitizer, as well as the inability to observe social distance in Minnesota jails, put vulnerable immigration detainees at risk of serious illness.

Immigration attorney Kim Hunter said Immigration and Customs Enforcement has fought against releasing detainees, including those held solely for civil immigration violations, without considering ankle monitoring or parole.

“I cannot emphasize enough that this is an agency that is relentless, this is an agency that does not like to hear the word ‘no,’” she said. “Unfortunately it shouldn’t take a lawsuit to get them to do what is humane, and what is just and what is simply logical in the face of the crisis that we are facing.”

In Pennsylvania, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit asking for the release of medically vulnerable detainees. A federal judge granted the ACLU’s request to release 22 detainees, but ICE appealed. ICE officials later sent a letter to the ACLU asking that the detainees voluntarily return to immigration detention.

In Sherburne County, 62 detainees have filed a petition asking for release from detention due to underlying health conditions. They’re waiting for a hearing later this month.

Nekessa Opoti, co-founder of Black Immigrant Collective, said the organization is hearing from family members about worrisome conditions in Minnesota jails where detainees are held.

“COVID-19 has proved that we all breathe the same air, it doesn’t care whether you have papers or not,” she said. “It is extremely irresponsible for us to be putting all of us in danger.”

ICE officials say they’ve modified operations to limit contact in response to coronavirus concerns. They also say they assess cases individually and consider each person’s circumstances, including criminal record, immigration history, ties to the community and flight risk.

According to guidance from ICE on its response to the pandemic, the agency initially identified more than 550 detainees nationwide who were over the age of 60 or pregnant. Of this population, it has identified more than 160 for release.

Two detainees have been released from ICE detention in Minnesota after showing symptoms of COVID-19, according to community organizations.

The groups are asking Walz, Minnesota Department of Corrections officials, sheriffs, jail officials and ICE to follow their own guidance and release more detainees.

“In ICE’s own words, this is a significant discretionary factor weighing in favor of release,” said Daniel Romero, an advocate with the Interfaith Coalition on Immigration.

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