April 7, 2020 / 11:53 PM / 2 months ago

U.S. immigration officials evaluate vulnerable detainees for possible release amid pandemic

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. immigration officials said on Tuesday they are considering releasing some detainees at high risk for coronavirus infection as detainees and workers have tested positive for the resulting COVID-19 illness.

FILE PHOTO: A detainee talks with an employee in an exam room in the medial unit during a media tour at Northwest ICE Processing Center, one of 31 dedicated ICE facilities that house immigration detainees, in Tacoma, Washington, U.S. December 16, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson/File Photo

In an email sent to lawmakers, 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 tally of infected employees does not include contractors working at its facilities.

Several top House Democrats sent letters to ICE earlier in the day that called on the agency to release detainees who do not pose a threat to public safety.

In one of the letters, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York and Representative Zoe Lofgren of California wrote that there was “simply no reason” ICE should not release such detainees, particularly those at high risk of contracting the disease.

Trump issued an executive order shortly after taking office in 2017 that called on federal immigration authorities to detain immigration law violators whenever possible. In February, his administration sought funding for 60,000 detention beds in its budget request. ICE currently detains roughly 36,000 people amid the pandemic.

Many detention centers are located in remote communities, far from hospitals that could handle a rush of patients with COVID-19, Reuters reported last week.

Reporting by Ted Hesson; Editing by Aurora Ellis

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