DHS watchdog to investigate COVID-19 cases in ICE detention facilities

DHS watchdog to investigate COVID-19 cases in ICE detention facilities
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The inspector general (IG) for the Department of Homeland Security penned a letter to Senate Democrats on Tuesday, informing them that he would open a requested investigation into coronavirus cases at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers.

"We are planning a review of ICE’s efforts to prevent and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in its facilities," Joseph Cuffari wrote. "The objective of our planned review is to determine whether ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) effectively managed the crisis at its detention facilities and adequately safeguarded the health and safety of both detainees in their custody and their staff."

A group of more than two dozen senators — spearheaded by Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallGOP lawmaker says he will oppose any attempts to delay election Trump raises idea of delaying election Cook Political Report shifts several Senate races toward Democrats MORE (D-N.M.) — wrote to the watchdog at the end of April, urging him to look at the growing number of coronavirus cases in ICE facilities.

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"Reports have revealed that as of April 16, 2020, ICE had 32,300 people in detention. To date, 360 detainees, 35 ICE employees at detention facilities, and 89 ICE employees not assigned to detention facilities, have tested positive for COVID-19," the group wrote at the time.

The senators' letter also noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had issued COVID-19 guidance for both prisons and detention centers.

"In an effort to confront the health risks of the pandemic, some facilities have swiftly moved to decrease prison populations," the lawmakers wrote. "ICE has even more reason and discretion than BOP [the Bureau of Prisons] to manage its population, as ICE detainees are civilly detained, and many of them are asylum seekers."

At the beginning of the month, ICE reported the first migrant death from coronavirus at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in California. 

By then, the American Civil Liberties Union had already filed a class-action lawsuit against ICE and CoreCivic, the private contractor that runs the detention center. The complaint demanded that ICE decrease the center's population to mitigate the spread of the disease.

In late April, a judge ordered ICE and CoreCivic to begin releasing medically vulnerable people from Otay Mesa's custody.

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The Trump administration has used to pandemic to further tighten immigration and border restrictions, with President TrumpDonald John TrumpWhite House sued over lack of sign language interpreters at coronavirus briefings Wife blames Trump, lack of masks for husband's coronavirus death in obit: 'May Karma find you all' Trump authorizes reduced funding for National Guard coronavirus response through 2020 MORE saying that the increased restrictions would help stop the virus from entering the country.

Last week, The Washington Post reported the U.S. had granted just two people refugee status since March 21 and The New York Times said the White House was looking to make the heightened immigration restrictions permanent.

Cuffari told the senators in his letter that he expects to have a report of his findings completed by the summer.

In response, Udall said the IG's report must have "meaningful, unbiased recommendations that protect the health and safety of detainees, of the individuals who work at these facilities every day, and of the surrounding communities.”

The Hill has reached out to ICE for further comment.