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Immigration attorneys and advocates are calling on the federal government to release all individuals currently held in federal immigration custody who do not have criminal convictions, in light of the public health emergency caused by the spread of the coronavirus.
As of April 2019, there were 737 people detained in immigration jails in the state. Of those, 423, or nearly 60% of them have no criminal conviction, according to Syracuse University's TRAC Immigration database.
Oren Nimni is an immigration attorney with the Boston-based advocacy group Lawyers for Civil Rights. In a statement, he said the public health concerns dictate that self-quarantining at home is the safest measure for everyone, including non-criminal ICE detainees.
"Without the immediate release of these detainees we can expect immigration detention centers across the country to become hotbeds of the virus. We cannot abandon people to that fate," Nimni said. "Release of these detainees would allow any remaining detainees to more effectively quarantined, reduce the supplies needed to treat those in detention and protect all involved in the immigration system."
Sarah Sherman-Stokes is the associate director of the Immigrants' Rights and Human Trafficking center at Boston University's School of Law. She points out immigration detention is not criminal in nature but civil.
"They [immigrant detainees] are in civil custody, this is not supposed to be punitive and being in custody exposes them to incredible risk they should not have to face, nor should criminals have to face," Sherman-Stokes said.
In a statement, the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA) also points to the civil nature of immigration infractions as a reason for releasing detainees who have no serious criminal histories.
"Keeping immigrants behind bars on purely civil matters is never good, but amid a major public-health crisis, it's irresponsible," said Eva Millona, the executive director of MIRA. "We urge the authorities to release all detained immigrants who have no serious criminal records — the vast majority — for the sake of public health and for the well-being of their families."
According to ICE, there have been no confirmed cases nationwide of coronavirus among detainees, as of March 13. Asked about how many detainees have actually been tested, an ICE spokesperson said he was unable to answer that question and referred WBUR to the agency's 'Frequently Asked Questions' page. There is currently no information on test numbers available.
The ICE website has been updated Monday to include some additional information related to the public health emergency caused by coronavirus.
"Consistent with federal partners, ICE is taking important steps to further safeguard those in our care. As a precautionary measure, ICE has temporarily suspended social visitation in all detention facilities," the page reads.
The ACLU of Massachusetts is seeking an immediate reduction of immigration enforcement as well as detention.
In a statement, Matthew Segal, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said close quarters in prisons and other detention facilities raise health concerns on a regular basis and especially so during a time of pandemic.
"The Trump administration’s immigration enforcement regime should not be sentencing people to potential exposure to a serious and potentially fatal disease," Segal said. "Public officials have made clear that we must all follow social-distancing and risk-reduction guidance, and this is especially true—not less true—where detained or incarcerated people are concerned."
Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley joined advocates and attorneys, saying the pandemic calls for decisive and compassionate action, including a moratorium on deportations.
“No one should be deterred from seeking medical care because of the threat of deportation,” Pressley said in a statement to WBUR.
“ICE and CBP must immediately reduce the number of those in detention, particularly those at heightened risk of serious illness from COVID-19 through compassionate release and community-based alternatives to detention.”
This article was originally published on March 16, 2020.