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08 April 2020 – United States

Protestors in Philadelphia call for officials to release people from prisons and immigration detention centres, Voice of America, 30 March 2020 (
Protestors in Philadelphia call for officials to release people from prisons and immigration detention centres, Voice of America, 30 March 2020 (

Facing pressure from rights groups and civil society, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has released a small number of immigration detainees. However, as the United States has the largest Immigration detention system in the world, which can reach some 40,000 detainees on any given day, the challenges the country confronts are enormous. Those released to date–less than 200 detainees–represent a fraction of the country’s total detainee population.

Many organisations have focused on promoting ATDs as a way to respond to the Covid-19 crisis. The Centre for Migration Studies, for example, urged the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to “immediately embark on an aggressive program of supervised release and alternative-to-detention (ATD) programs for those in its custody. Immigrant detention serves two main purposes, to ensure that non-citizens appear for their removal proceedings and, in rare cases, to protect the public. Yet in the current circumstances, it endangers detainees, detention staff, court officials, health care providers, and the public. … The administration should recognize the scale of this emergency and act now.”

On 7 April, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that it was considering releasing more detainees, focusing narrowly on “vulnerable” detainees. According to Reuters (8 April 2020), “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said that it had instructed its offices around the country to consider the release of detainees with an increased risk of contracting the deadly respiratory disease. Among those whose cases are being reviewed are pregnant women and detainees ages 60 and older, according to the agency. ICE said that it already had identified 600 detainees it considered vulnerable and released 160 people from custody. Those released will be required to wear ankle bracelets or be subject to other forms of monitoring. The decision comes after ICE announced last month that it would delay arresting some people suspected of violating immigration laws until after the coronavirus crisis, one of several emergency moves that could hamper President Donald Trump’s aggressive immigration crackdown. ICE has recorded 19 cases of detainees infected with COVID-19 and 71 cases of agency employees with the disease, including 11 who work in detention centers, according to figures posted on its website.”

The ICE announcement comes as pressure from independent experts and rights groups grows. On 17 March, several organisations (including Physicians for Human Rights, Amnesty USA, and Human Rights First) issued letters urging the federal government to release immigration detainees held in their states, citing concerns that detention facilities will become “incubators” for the virus. Simultaneously, other organisations including ACLU mounted legal challenges to release vulnerable detainees. On 18 March, after facing criticisms for its continued enforcement actions, ICE announced that it would temporarily postpone most arrests, except persons who pose public safety risks and individuals subject to mandatory detention on criminal grounds, and would “utilize alternatives to detention where appropriate.” The agency also stated that it would not make arrests near health care centres, so as not to discourage persons from seeking medical assistance.

Several judges have ordered the release of certain immigration detainees – including judges in New York, California, and Pennsylvania. For example, on 31 March, a federal judge in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, ordered the immediate release of 10 immigration detainees – all with underlying health problems – from several county jails with ICE contracts. The judge cited authorities’ failure to take appropriate measures to protect the individuals from the virus as reason for their release. Other judges, however, have turned down requests to release detainees, instead ordering authorities to ensure compliance with federal guidelines.

On 28 March, a federal judge in LA gave the Trump administration until 6 April to explain why it cannot release the approximately 7,000 immigrant children in shelters and detention facilities across the country, and unite them with waiting sponsors. This was later expanded by a federal judge in Washington to include their parents. On 4 April 2020, it was reported that at least five migrants held in two ICE detention centres in Pennsylvania had tested positive for Covid-19 and were placed in isolation.

Detainees confined at Winn Correctional Center (Louisiana) reported that ICE have failed to supply masks, hand sanitiser, gloves, and cleaning supplies to a group of 44 detainees isolated together (having possibly been exposed to the virus). Reportedly, seven detainees were deported to Columbia, four days into a 14-day quarantine period – violating basic Covid-19 containment standards.