As the global death toll from coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to mount and communities take steps to stem the further spread of the virus, immigration advocates and lawyers have sounded the alarm bells for the thousands of immigrants held in civil detention facilities.

Responses from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have been mixed. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)—the agency responsible for conducting naturalization ceremonies and citizenship and asylum interviews—closed their offices this week.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has reportedly committed to limiting roundups of immigrants in the interior of the United States while the pandemic rages, but has failed to take any steps to release immigrants held in ICE detention facilities around the country.

Here are three steps that ICE should take nationwide to ensure the health and safety of all Americans:

1. Decrease the number of people in immigration detention to limit exposure

Immigration detention could be fatal for persons whom the Centers for Disease Control and other public health experts have designated “at risk.”

Under the law, ICE can choose who they detain. There are alternatives to detention, such as telephonic check-ins and ankle monitors, that are more humane and less costly. The agency should immediately exercise their legal discretion to the greatest extent possible to prevent unnecessary deaths.

2. Release information on ICE’s COVID-19 protocols

ICE has released only general information to the public regarding its plans for detained individuals as the country braces for the further spread of COVID-19. The lack of information has generated confusion and concern as well as litigation seeking the release of detained individuals at high risk of illness or death if they were to contract COVID-19.

For those migrants ICE refuses to release, it is critical for the public to understand what precautions are being taken to prevent further spread within ICE facilities.

Transparency around COVID-19 is a matter of life or death. The agency must respond to a Freedom of Information Act request submitted on March 19 requesting information about trainings, protocols, and concrete steps being taken to prevent a further outbreak of COVID-19. The agency must also share what steps ICE will take in the event of an outbreak. We must hold the agency accountable for how it plans to treat some of the most vulnerable in its custody.

3. Ensure immigration attorneys have remote access to clients and bond hearings.

ICE must ensure that detained people can remotely access legal counsel through free, unmonitored phone calls, increased use of video-teleconferencing, and enhanced access to non-contact visitation. ICE must ensure that detained people can remotely access legal counsel through free, unmonitored phone calls, increased use of free video-teleconferencing, and enhanced access to non-contact visitation.

Earlier this week, immigration advocates sent a letter to the ICE Field Office in El Paso, Texas—a jurisdiction holding thousands of immigrants in detention—outlining these immediate steps the agency should take to curb the further spread of COVID-19. The letter urges ICE to exercise its broad discretion to release as many detainees as possible, particularly those who are at higher risk of infection including people who are older, have underlying health conditions, are pregnant, and who are immunocompromised.  

With almost 40,000 people in detention, concerns for immigrants detained in El Paso—and elsewhere—continue to mount. Substandard conditions in detention—and the fact that it is impossible for detainees to socially distance from each other—inherently put detained immigrants at risk.  

ICE claims the agency is well-equipped to handle the health crisis. However, documented complaints and numerous deaths in immigration detention show how ill-equipped ICE-run facilities are in handling healthcare issues, much less a pandemic. The heightened risk of exposure and spread of COVID-19 not only impacts the detained migrants and facility staff—communities surrounding the immigration detention centers are also impacted by the public health crisis.   

The government has a responsibility to take these steps. Failure to do so may worsen the impact on everyone—regardless of their immigration status.