Immigration and Customs Enforcement will suspend all social visitations to its detention facilities across the United States, including Arizona, due to concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“Consistent with federal partners, ICE is taking important steps to further safeguard those in our care,” an ICE spokesperson said in an emailed statement about the suspension of visits from family and friends. “As a precautionary measure, we are temporarily suspending social visitation in all detention facilities.”
Legal visits will still be allowed, ICE spokesperson Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe confirmed to Phoenix New Times. O'Keefe confirmed a letter had been sent to Congress informing them of the change.
Currently, there are no detainees in ICE custody with confirmed COVID-19.
The Department of Homeland Security is also suspending many prosecutions for illegal entry in Arizona due to concern about COVID-19, according to a recent tweet from Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary for DHS.
In his tweet, Ken Cuccinelli said the courts will continue to consider cases with “aggravating circumstances,” including those involving people with prior criminal histories or acts of violence. The DHS has not yet responded to requests for comment.
As the novel coronavirus has evolved into a pandemic in the last week and the United States has declared a national emergency over the outbreak, advocates have begun to call for a release of migrants in ICE detention centers. They allege that overcrowded conditions and inadequate hygiene and medical supplies make the over 200 facilities throughout the country potential hotbeds for the virus’s spread.
The DHS announcement means most people will continue to be held in immigration detention while awaiting trial.
ICE has said the “health, welfare, and safety” of detainees is one of its highest priorities, and that its epidemiologists have been tracking the outbreak and continuing to advise ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC) staff, who provide medical services in many detention facilities, including those in Arizona.
The federal agency has said it will quarantine migrants who express mild illness as needed, in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, placing them in “medical airborne infection isolation rooms” designed to contain biological agents like COVID-19.
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But it has been relatively opaque on the status of these migrants in its care, in Arizona facilities or nationally.
ICE has not responded to New Times’ daily emails about how many detainees in Arizona have been tested for the virus, or how many are currently in isolation.
It also has not confirmed how many of the IHSC-run detention facilities in Arizona are equipped with these airborne infection isolation rooms.
The federal immigration agency has said it is reviewing CDC guidance daily, and is updating protocols to remain consistent as needed.