The Trump administration on Friday moved to temporarily suspend family visits in immigration detention centers across the country in response to the escalating coronavirus pandemic that has killed at least 50 Americans.
"As a precautionary measure, we are temporarily suspending social visitation in all detention facilities," U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced. The measure will prohibit visits from family members and friends, but the possibility of regulating attorney visits is still being examined, an ICE official told CBS News.
Since the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. began, advocates and lawmakers have called on ICE to minimize the risk of the virus propagating inside the agency's scores of detention centers, which have been susceptible to outbreaks of different diseases like mumps and measles in recent years. On Friday, the agency reiterated that it has not confirmed any COVID-19 cases among the roughly 38,000 immigrants in its custody. Four detainees have met the criteria for testing as of Friday, but the results all came back negative, according to the ICE official.
"The health, welfare and safety of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees is one of the agency's highest priorities," an agency spokesperson said in a statement. "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."
In addition to the visits ban, ICE said it has created a "screening guidance" for new detainees, as well as quarantine and "cohorting" measures for immigrants who have symptoms of the virus. Those who meet the "person under investigation" definition by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will be isolated and observed for a "specified time period."
Out the 20 detention facilities overseen by ICE's Health Service Corps, 16 have airborne infection isolation rooms, where the agency plans to keep detainees at risk of contracting the COVID-19 or those showcasing symptoms of the virus.
With the pandemic continuing to upend the U.S. economy and everyday lives of Americans, lawmakers on Friday continued to press ICE to implement more precautionary measures. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus said ICE and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the agencies that detain single adult migrants and families, should consider releasing some detainees, like asylum-seekers who are not public safety threats.
The agencies, the lawmakers said in a letter, should "reassess each person in their custody, on an individual basis, to determine whether they pose a threat to public safety or are a flight risk; any individuals not meeting those criteria should be released on parole, bond, or with some level of supervision."
In their letter to acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Congressional Hispanic Caucus chairman Joaquin Castro and Congresswoman Linda Sánchez noted that eight immigrants have died in ICE custody in fiscal year 2020, saying they are concerned the "number of fatalities will spike due to a lack of preparation in response to the coronavirus."