Immigration activists stepped up their campaign to force ICE to release migrants amid the coronavirus crisis, taking to the streets in California in a drive-by protest Tuesday demanding the governor issue an emergency shutdown order for federal detention facilities in the state.
In Washington, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus said it wants to see “thousands” of immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally being held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement be released — and said for good measure migrants being processed at the border should be immediately released as well.
While there may be some exceptions for the most dangerous illegal immigrants, most of the tens of thousands currently being held should be freed, the caucus’s leaders said.
“Ideally you would get everybody out of those confined spaces where they’re sitting ducks for this virus,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro, the Texas Democrat who is chairman of the caucus.
In California, activists from a number of Jewish groups teamed up with immigrant rights advocates to urge state leaders to force ICE’s hand. They called for Gov. Gavin Newsom and local authorities to claim emergency powers to impose a release.
“We know that Anne Frank didn’t die in the gas chambers, but rather she died of a communicable disease in the crowded and dirty conditions of a detention center,” says Sam Tunick with Never Again Action Bay Area. “We don’t want to see history repeated — we are doing what we wish bystanders during the Holocaust had done for our ancestors.”
The groups staged their protest Tuesday by driving cars by ICE facilities in Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as the state Capitol in Sacramento.
They said they were defying Mr. Newsom’s shelter-in-place orders by staging the protest, which included cars decked out with anti-Trump and anti-ICE posters, and chants of “Hey hey, ho ho, racist ICE has got to go.”
ICE has released a small number of migrant detainees amid the pandemic, some of them on its own and some under court orders.
A Pennsylvania judge ordered a new round of releases Tuesday, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. That follows releases in New York and California last week.
But the Hispanic Caucus lawmakers said that’s not nearly enough.
They point to some infectious disease experts who say the communal nature of prisons, jails and detention facilities makes them particularly dangerous, since social distancing generally isn’t possible. Once one inmate or detainee is infected, the coronavirus would quickly spread, they predicted.
ICE said it couldn’t comment on the pending court cases, but said it makes custody determinations every day based on individual circumstances, including whether the law requires detention, the person’s level of criminality and dangers of flight or risk to the community.
ICE said in a statement it can use post-release monitoring “for a variety of reasons.”
In court papers, the Trump administration has argued the requests for mass releases are not well thought out, and have insisted ICE is taking steps consistent with guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hispanic Caucus members said most immigrants living illegally in the U.S. have family members already here, and they could be released to those families on promises they’ll return for their court dates and deportations, if so ordered.
Naureen Shah with the ACLU, said the organization has seven lawsuits pending demanding migrants’ release.
She said each of those ups the pressure on ICE field directors.
“You may be thinking twice about whether or not you really should be keeping all those people there,” she said.
Some federal judges who have ruled on requests for release have scolded ICE, with one saying the agency showed “callous disregard” for migrants’ safety.
“This is an unprecedented time in our nation’s history, filled with uncertainty, fear, and anxiety. But in the time of a crisis, our response to those at particularly high risk must be with compassion and not apathy,” wrote Judge Terry Hatter Jr., in the Central District of California.
Amnesty International USA and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service are taking another approach, calling for people to send letters, poems and artwork to migrants being held in detention to boost their spirits.
“If this crisis has made anything clear, it is that we are all dependent upon each other to ensure the health and well-being of our neighbors and ourselves,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of LIRS. “We may have to self-isolate for the time being, but we know that hope can’t be quarantined.”