The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security introduced their proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2021 (beginning October 1, 2020) this week. The budget would have significant implications for U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities—current hotspots of the coronavirus pandemic.

In a reversal of previous budget requests, this budget proposes a major decrease in funds for detention and other immigration operations across the board. If approved, the spending bill would:

  • Cut the Department of Homeland Security’s deportation operations by 25%.
  • Eliminate family detention by the end of the year.
  • Impose a 20-day limit on holding individuals in detention.
  • Increase funding to expand alternative to detention programs.
  • Avoid funding the hiring of more Border Patrol agents.

Notably, the spending bill calls for enough money to fund an average daily population of 22,000 adults in ICE custody. This is a huge decrease from Fiscal Year 2019, which allowed for 40,520 beds. The agency grossly overspent, however, as there were over 55,000 people in ICE custody at one point in 2019.

These proposed cuts—while far from final—would be a significant departure from detention numbers in recent years. But a commitment to reduce the number of people in ICE detention centers couldn’t be more critical or timely.

The death toll from COVID-19 in the United States has reached almost 135,000, placing United States as the world leader in terms of infections and coronavirus-related deaths. As many states consider resuming lockdowns to stem the further spread of the virus, the number of confirmed cases within ICE detention facilities continues to rise.

The agency alleges it has taken steps to reduce the overall population of people in ICE facilities. As of June 27, 2020, there were about 23,000 men and women in ICE custody. This is down from around 38,000 people on February 29. Even so, it’s not enough.

Concerns around ICE detention during the pandemic have been consistent since COVID-19 took hold in the United States this spring:

  • The longstanding lack of access to medical care within ICE facilities.
  • The inability of detained people to socially distance within congregate settings.
  • Insufficient cleaning and hygiene supplies, and personal protective gear.

Hundreds of detained immigrants have been transferred by ICE between jails, prisons, and ICE detention centers. Many of them have been transferred across the country, sometimes crossing multiple state lines.

ICE stated that the transfers were sometimes done to further stem the spread of the virus. But in some cases, the transfers actually led to outbreaks in ICE facilities.

The agency is frequently unwilling to release people on parole, despite the availability of community-based alternatives to detention. In some cases, attorneys desperate to secure the release of clients with serious health conditions are being forced to file habeas petitions in federal court to force the government’s hand.

The immediate solution to the continued spread of COVID-19 within ICE detention facilities is clear – ICE should consider community-based alternatives to detention and immediately release individuals from custody, particularly those who have underlying health conditions.

In the long-term, Congress should work to reduce the overall number of people in immigration detention across and instead call on ICE to rely on viable and effective alternatives. If nothing else, the current pandemic has shown us that detaining high numbers of people in dangerous settings is unnecessary and costly.