Congressional Democrats on Tuesday called on the Trump administration to allow free calls at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Democrats argued in a letter to acting Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Chad WolfChad WolfHouse approves bill to strengthen IT supply chain following SolarWinds hack Sunday shows preview: States deal with fallout of Ida; Texas abortion law takes effect Biden, Trump battle over who's to blame for Afghanistan MORE and acting ICE Director Matthew Albence that free access to calls is necessary for people in detention centers to communicate with people outside as they prepare for immigration court cases. These calls, they said, are especially important after ICE suspended social and legal visits to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“In order to effectively prepare for their immigration court cases, these detainees must communicate with people outside detention who have access to relevant evidence. For those who do have representation in their removal cases, access to meaningful and confidential phone communication with counsel is essential,” Democrats wrote in the letter first shared with The Hill.
The bicameral letter is led by Sens. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharPaid family leave proposal at risk Top Arizona elections official says violent threats fueling worker turnover Infrastructure bill carves out boosts to first responders, wildland firefighters MORE (D-Minn.) and Dick DurbinDick DurbinInfrastructure bill carves out boosts to first responders, wildland firefighters Democrats face critical 72 hours Bipartisan lawmakers target judges' stock trading with new bill MORE (D-Ill.) and Reps. Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerAll eyes on Garland after Bannon contempt vote Photos of the Week: Manchin protestor, Paris Hilton and a mirror room Fight breaks out between Jordan, Nadler over rules about showing video at Garland hearing MORE (D-N.Y.) and Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - After high drama, Senate lifts debt limit Biden to raise refugee cap to 125,000 in October Republicans keep distance from 'Justice for J6' rally MORE (D-Calif.). It is signed by an additional 27 senators and 52 representatives.
The lawmakers noted the “crowded, unsanitary conditions” that they said put detainees and detention center staff at high risk of COVID-19 infections.
ICE spokeswoman Danielle Bennett said in a Wednesday statement that the agency began providing 520 minutes of free calls per month to detainees on April 22 at all facilities served by Talton Communications, which she said includes about 57 percent of the ICE-detained population.
She said ICE has been negotiating with other facilities to allow the same.
“ICE recognizes the substantial impact of curtailing personal visitation during the pandemic, and continues to facilitate communication with families through extended access to telephones, teleconferencing, video visitation and email with extended hours where possible,” Bennett said in an email.
There are 1,073 confirmed COVID-19 cases among detainees across ICE facilities, according to ICE data.
Democrats said they “appreciate” that ICE officials told congressional staff earlier this month that they are providing 520 free minutes per month for each person in detention, but the lawmakers said the policy has not been enforced.
“According to information received by Congress, many facilities have not provided any free minutes, some have provided fewer than 520 minutes, and others have provided detainees with 13 free, ten-minute calls per week — but prohibit detainees from carrying over unused minutes,” they wrote.
The democrats are calling on DHS and ICE to take “immediate action” to ensure ICE facilities implement the free phone minutes policy. They also asked DHS to supply them with information regarding the implementation of the policy.
—Updated Wednesday at 1:58 p.m.