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ICE says it will consider freeing vulnerable immigrants as coronavirus cases rise

Woman in ICE custody pleads for release

As coronavirus cases among detained immigrants continue to rise, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced Tuesday it has directed officials across the country to consider releasing detainees who are at increased risk of getting severely ill or dying from the highly contagious virus.

Citing the "unprecedented nature" of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 12,000 people in the U.S., ICE said it is evaluating whether to release immigrants over the age of 60, as well as those who are pregnant. The agency said it is also reviewing guidance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to determine whether it should consider additional factors to free other categories of detainees.

As of March 30, the agency has identified 600 vulnerable immigrants in its custody and released more than 160, according to the statement on Tuesday afternoon.

The announcement, which was first reported by BuzzFeed News, comes amid a surge in confirmed coronavirus infections among ICE detainees. On Tuesday, the agency confirmed that at least 19 immigrants have now tested positive for coronavirus while in the agency's custody, adding six new cases in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Michigan to the previous public count.

New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez said he was glad that ICE would exercise its discretion to release vulnerable detainees. "ICE can save lives and I hope they act quickly," Menendez, a Democrat, said in a statement to CBS News.

Hours before the directive was announced, a federal judge in Pennsylvania ordered the agency to release 22 detainees with chronic medical conditions, warning of "catastrophic outcomes" resulting from the pandemic if they are not freed.

U.S. District Court Judge John Jones from the Middle District of Pennsylvania said the group of sick immigrants merited immediate release since at least six other detainees at the two detention centers where they are being held have been infected by the virus. ICE has confirmed five coronavirus cases among detainees at the Pike County Correctional Facility, as well as one positive test result at the York County Prison.

"It now seems that our worst fears have been realized — COVID-19 is spreading, and not nearly enough is being done to combat it," Jones, an appointee of President George W. Bush, wrote in his order. "We cannot allow the Petitioners before us, all at heightened risk for severe complications from COVID-19, to bear the consequences of ICE's inaction."

Later Tuesday, Jones granted a request by Trump administration lawyers and temporarily halted his initial order pending further proceedings.

The immigrants Jones initially ordered freed suffer from a variety of underlying medical conditions that health experts and the CDC say makes them more susceptible to severe illness or even death if they contract the coronavirus.

They include a 35-year-old immigrant who suffers from asthma, a heart murmur and hepatitis C, with a history of seizures and blood clots; a 32-year-old with a traumatic brain injury who suffers seizures; and a 49-year-old detainee with high blood pressure and inflamed intestines who experiences "debilitating pain" that hinders his ability to walk.

"We cannot leave the most fragile among us to face that growing danger unprotected," Jones said in his order, which followed a previous one he issued late last month that required ICE to release 10 sick detainees in the state.

Citing declarations submitted to his court, Jones said ICE has not implemented "effective containment measures" to shield immigrants detained at the two Pennsylvania detention centers from the highly contagious coronavirus. He said staff do not "reliably wear gloves and masks when interacting" with detainees, temperature checks are "infrequently conducted" and cell blocks that housed infected people are not being "thoroughly evacuated and cleaned."

"We even have reports that detainees exhibiting COVID-like symptoms are remaining in general housing for days, and that once they are quarantined, no testing is being provided to those who remain," Jones wrote. 

ICE has maintained it is taking adequate measures to safeguard the health of detainees and detention center staff, including heightened screening procedures and the suspension of in-person family visits. But on Tuesday, the agency went further, announcing it is "reviewing cases of individuals in detention who may be vulnerable to the virus" and considering placing some detainees on "a number of alternatives to detention options."

Tuesday's court order stems from a case filed by the Pennsylvanian branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, whose chapters have filed a dozen other similar suits across the U.S. demanding the release of at-risk immigrants. So far, ICE has released 50 ACLU clients, according to the group. 

The agency has also released immigrants in states like California and New Jersey because of other court orders. At least 70 immigrants have been released from ICE custody at the Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark, New Jersey, according to county officials.

Before ICE made its release directive public, Eunice Cho, an ACLU attorney who has been spearheading the group's efforts to release detained immigrants amid the pandemic, had urged the agency to implement a nationwide policy of releasing detainees.

"Despite the increasing number of people who are testing positive, both employees and detainees in the system, ICE is certainly not making the widespread moves that are required to avert a certain humanitarian disaster," Cho told CBS News. 

Frustration among immigrants in ICE custody has grown in recent weeks as they watch the number of cases and deaths in the U.S. balloon on a daily basis. Many of them feel defenseless in detention centers where social distancing is virtually impossible and sanitary amenities are few and far between.

Luís, a 59-year-old Cuban asylum-seeker, was released Tuesday after spending roughly 8 months in ICE detention, according to his lawyer, Lorena Pérez McGill. Last week, Luís, who suffers from asthma, broke down in tears describing his fear of contracting the coronavirus inside the detention center in Harrisonburg, Louisiana, where he was held.

"I never imagined experiencing this here in the U.S.," he told CBS News in Spanish. "It's been something really difficult for me. I still carry that trauma."

For roughly seven months, Lianet Pérez Romero, 24, has been detained at a for-profit prison in Jena, Louisiana, where hundreds of immigrants are held. Pérez Romero is not eligible for bond, and has not been allowed to appeal her asylum denial outside of detention.

She said she's currently in solitary confinement as a result of an incident last week in which a group of women were pepper sprayed after trying to forcibly leave their housing area during a briefing about coronavirus preparations. Like other women detained in Jena, she's terrified of being infected.

"I don't sleep. I can't sleep," Pérez Romero told CBS News during a phone call from the facility. "And I know that can hurt me, because if I'm in a state of being depressed, that can be a factor in me getting sick more easily."

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