U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said 19 of its employees, including at least one worker at a New Jersey detention facility, have tested positive for the coronavirus.
The agency made the announcement in a statement late Tuesday, just hours after confirming one of its immigrants, a 31-year-old Mexican national held in a New Jersey county jail, had become the first detainee with a confirmed case.
"The individual has been quarantined and is receiving care," ICE said, adding that those who came in contact with the person have been singled out and will be monitored for symptoms.
There is no connection between the two New Jersey cases, ICE told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday. The agency also confirmed that an employee at a Houston-area detention center run by a private contractor also has tested positive.
The agency, which had 37,311 individuals in custody as of March 14, said it did not have information on how many tests were being conducted on its detainees and employees, "only confirmation of positive cases."
The developments, however, raised additional concerns by advocacy groups who had been predicting more cases unless increased measures were put in place to protect the immigrant detention population.
“The suffering and death that will occur is unnecessary and preventable,” Andrea Flores, deputy director of policy for the American Civil Liberties Union's equality division, said in a statement. "ICE must take immediate and drastic steps to reduce the number of people in detention. If it doesn’t, it will be to blame for a humanitarian crisis.”
In an effort to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, ICE has suspended social visitation at all detention facilities. But immigration advocates say more needs to be done.
In the last few weeks, ACLU and other advocacy groups have sued ICE for the release of individuals with preexisting medical conditions from detention facilities, arguing these people are most vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus.
“For people who are detained and at high risk for COVID-19, being released is a matter of life or death. Being detained during an epidemic that threatens their lives violates our clients’ basic constitutional right to be free from punitive conditions of confinement," said Adina Appelbaum, program director of the Immigration Impact Lab at CAIR Coalition. "These medically vulnerable individuals need to be released to the shelter and safety of their families."
Federal courts have issued rulings with mixed results on recent cases involving the release of detained immigrants.
Last week, a federal judge in Seattle struck down ACLU’s request to release nine immigrants held at a Washington state immigration detention facility, stating the plaintiff failed to show sufficient evidence that these detainees were likely to face “irreparable harm” if they stayed in place.
Earlier this week, however, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the release of a detained immigrant, Lucero Xochihua James, because of “the rapidly escalating public health crisis, which public health authorities predict will especially impact immigration detention centers.”
Some immigration organizations said the positive coronavirus cases among ICE employees and a detainee will encourage federal judges to release more individuals from detention.
It "reinforces the urgency and the crisis nature of this situation. With the lack of availability of testing, it is highly likely that many more have already been infected," Sirine Shebaya, executive director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, told CQ Roll Call. "This makes the case for release even stronger since it shows that it is only a matter of time before COVID-19 spreads throughout immigration detention facilities."