Immigration and Customs Enforcement has identified 600 people as vulnerable to COVID-19 and is considering their release "on a case-by-case basis," an agency spokesperson told CQ Roll Call on Tuesday.
The agency has already released at least 160 people who may be at risk.
"Due to the unprecedented nature of COVID-19, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is reviewing cases of individuals in detention who may be vulnerable to the virus," an agency spokesperson wrote via email. "Utilizing CDC guidance along with the advice of medical professionals, ICE may place individuals in a number of alternatives to detention options."
As of March 28, ICE had detained 35,671 people. Of those, 5,991 had already cleared the initial steps of the asylum process.
According to ICE's latest public tally, 19 detainees, seven detention facility staffers and 48 employees have tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
On Tuesday, the agency instructed its field offices to assess people in custody for release based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — specifically, to consider age, pregnancy and other factors that may make them more susceptible to the virus.
The agency also said it would take into consideration other factors, such as a person's criminal record, immigration history, community ties, flight risk and whether the person would be deemed a threat to public safety.
The announcement comes after calls by advocates and Democratic lawmakers to release detainees amid the current health crisis, starting with the most vulnerable. These critics argue that ICE's enclosed facilities, where social distancing is not possible, make immigrants susceptible to illness. They also said that ICE is ill-equipped to provide appropriate medical care to anyone who falls ill.
Among the critics were House Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y. and Rep. Jamie Raskin, the Maryland Democrat who chairs the committee's civil rights and civil liberties panel. The two lawmakers wrote Tuesday to acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and his agency chiefs, criticizing their leadership amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In their letter, they noted ICE officials had conceded to congressional staff that the agency had "no contingency plan for coronavirus treatment if local hospitals become overwhelmed and cannot treat detainees."
The two Democrats also said ICE's practice of "cohorting" — or isolating detainees together in their cells — runs counter to the recommendation of health experts.
Numerous lawsuits recently have cropped up asking courts to force ICE to release detainees at various detention centers as the severity of the pandemic worsens. The American Civil Liberties Union alone has filed 13 complaints in different parts of the country, resulting in the release of 50 people.
It was not entirely clear Tuesday whether there was overlap among the court-mandated releases and the voluntary ones by ICE.