President Donald Trump has announced an emergency suspension of immigration due to COVID-19. Having spent my career as an Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent, I believe that the real emergency is reducing the public health threat of the immigration detention facilities we’re already running. To protect officers and community members alike, we need to release everyone in these facilities who does not pose a public safety risk.
Like nursing homes and cruise ships, ICE immigration detention centers are incubators for COVID-19 infection. At Krome Detention Center in South Florida and many other facilities nationwide, detainees and officers are already testing positive for COVID-19. Social distancing is impossible in ICE facilities, with dining halls that seat people elbow to elbow and sleeping accommodations that stuff people into densely packed bunk beds. This puts everyone at risk, including officers and staff who go home at night to their families. Research shows that a detention infection problem can rapidly spread into the surrounding community, accelerating the spread of COVID-19 throughout our state.
Public safety officials around the country understand the risk of detention facilities accelerating the pandemic. Attorney General William Barr is ordering federal prison officials to release people from the many prisons where the virus is spreading. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine is reducing the state prison population. Judges in Oklahoma have stopped enforcement of warrants. They understand that holding someone who does not pose a public safety threat is creating an unnecessary public health threat to us all.
ICE is far behind in responding to the crisis. Detention centers have released some people at extreme medical risk, but not enough -- a federal judge just ordered ICE to release more people at high medical risk.
As a retired agent, I know that ICE could easily release most of the people in these facilities, who pose no real safety risk. Prisons are working to identify everyone who can safely be returned to the community to minimize outbreaks behind bars. By contrast, ICE’s detainee population could be quickly and safely released.
Reducing the population would also reduce the need for corrections officers to put themselves and their families at risk. It would allow corrections officers to call in sick when they have symptoms and to conserve personal protective equipment. It would allow facilities to quarantine those who test positive to avoid the virus from overtaking entire buildings.
Suspending ICE enforcement would also help directly reduce the spread of the virus on the street. In immigrant communities, which have been hit hardest by the virus, many people avoid the hospital for fear of deportation. We all benefit when more sick people get tested, treated, and quarantined from the rest of the population. Suspending enforcement would help us avoid spreading the virus like wildfire.
In this public health emergency, we are suspending constitutional protections, from the freedom of assembly to normal immigration laws. We cannot afford to continue business as usual with the current immigration detention process. To protect Florida, we need to remove everyone from detention who can safely be returned to the community. ICE can lead the way in keeping our country safe.
Ray Strack retired as a supervisory special agent after serving for 27 years with the Department of Homeland Security Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He is a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of police, prosecutors and other law enforcement officials working to improve the criminal justice system.