O’BRIEN: ‘Release The ICE Detainees’ Myth Based On Flawed Understanding Of Jail Medicine

REUTERS/Doriam Morales

Matt O'Brien Contributor
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Documented is an online newsletter that claims to report on “immigration as it matters to New Yorkers.” And despite the fact that every day life in New York City has been severely impacted by widespread protests and civil disturbances, the publication is worried that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) isn’t spending millions of taxpayer dollars testing detainees and deportees for COVID-19.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, open borders advocates have insisted that the United States must release every immigration violator currently in ICE custody. In fact, Documented’s piece is only the latest in a long line of articles and essays implying that the COVID-19 outbreak creates some kind of ethico-legal obligation for the United States to ignore its immigration laws and give any immigration violator who may have a passing risk of exposure to the virus a free run of the United States.

Their basic contention is that it’s unreasonable, some say cruel, to keep foreign nationals in immigration detention – because the close confines and communal living arrangements inherent in a detention setting allegedly increase the risk of becoming infected with COVID-19. And, because detainees can’t leave, they can’t protect themselves through social distancing, self-quarantine, etc. Therefore, the argument goes, continued immigration detention is akin to a death sentence.

A case last month in Culpeper, Virginia sheds some light on the validity of that contention: Following a domestic dispute, police in Culpeper, Virginia arrested an illegal alien. During pre-detention screening conducted by the Culpeper County Jail, he showed signs of COVID-19 infection. The suspect was taken to a local hospital, where he tested positive for the virus and received medical treatment. Ultimately, he was released on bond. That decision was consistent with Virginia bail laws, but was also partly motivated by a desire to protect inmates already in the custody of the Culpeper County Sheriff.

Open borders advocates immediately pointed to this individual as a patient zero who could have started the spread of the Wuhan Virus throughout ICE’s detention system. But what the case actually demonstrated is that the two premises on which the “release the ICE detainees” argument rests – 1) that detainees don’t receive adequate medical care and 2) that detainees are a static population inherently free of COVID-19 – are both fundamentally flawed.

First off, the screening system put in place by the Culpeper County Sheriff’s Office performed flawlessly. And, to anyone familiar with the procedures employed by American correctional institutions, that should come as no surprise. In order to fulfill their duty of care toward inmates, all detention facilities in the U.S. – with the exception of short-term lockups – have some form of medical assessment available, both as part of their intake process and as part of their ongoing surveillance programs. In fact, most detention centers employ significantly more nurses, physician assistants and other medical personnel than the typical American public school. This ensures the safety of both detainees and correctional staff.

As a result, communicable diseases of public health significance, like COVID-19, don’t present a particularly unique challenge to detention facilities. Even in the absence of a worldwide pandemic, outbreaks of disease are an ongoing concern for jail, prison and detention center officials. Any time people live in close quarters and share communal facilities there is a possibility that, in the absence of effective sanitary procedures, disease may spread. That means medical screening is a constant part of any stay in detention. And, the fact is, the attention received by many immigration violators from detention center medical staff is often the first high-quality healthcare they have ever received.

Moreover, the portrayal of individuals in ICE detention as hapless victims, subject to infection by detention center staff, simply does not comport with reality. Detainee populations are not static. New detainees are introduced into inmate populations on a daily basis. Existing detainees are transferred to other facilities or released. That means that detainees are at risk of being infected by COVID-19 brought in from the outside. But they also present a risk of transmitting the disease to the greater community upon release. And that is why conscientious administrators have made testing and quarantine available within their facilities.

But the availability of these measures has not always met with approval. For example, when inmates at the Bristol County Jail in Massachusetts expressed concerns about the potential spread of COVID-19, Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson offered to transfer ICE detainees to the medical wing of his jail and provide testing. In response, they rioted and trashed the facility.

Why? Because the call to release ICE detainees has absolutely nothing to do with halting the spread of COVID-19 or maintaining the health of immigration violators. Rather, it is simply an alternative strategy to undermine the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement efforts. The open borders contingent has always maintained that illegal aliens and other immigration violators are “targeted” due to their race, rather than their violations of our immigration laws. (Which is patently absurd when one considers the fact that the U.S. regularly deports thousands of Europeans, Canadians, Australians, etc.)

Now, in the midst of civil unrest, calls for the release of immigration violators are likely to increase. And those calls may be – wittingly or unwittingly – aided and abetted by law enforcement officials who claim they need additional space to house individuals arrested following protests that turn violent.

But what America needs most right now is firm adherence to the rule of law. Our jails and prisons continued to operate during the Spanish Flu pandemic, which raged alongside World War I and killed 675,000 people in the U.S. alone. Therefore, the current outbreak should not serve as an excuse for turning the lawless and the dangerous loose in American communities that are crumbling under the dual strains of political unrest and pandemic disease.

Matt O’Brien is the Director of Research at the Federation for American Immigration Reform. He previously served as Assistant Chief Counsel in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Institutional Removal Program, which secures deportation orders against foreign criminals serving time in state and local correctional facilities.