With more than 37,000 detainees closely confined in facilities across the country, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers are extremely susceptible to outbreaks of infectious diseases. The design of these facilities requires inmates to remain in close contact with one another—the opposite of the social distancing now recommended for stopping the spread of the lethal coronavirus.As the former Acting Director of ICE under President Obama, I know that preventing the virus from being introduced into these facilities is impossible. This week, the Trump administration announced that, in light of its concern that the virus could be introduced into detention centers, it would shift its enforcement operations to focus only on criminals and dangerous individuals. This means that the agency will arrest and place in detention only those undocumented immigrants who have serious criminal convictions. Those without a criminal record will be allowed to stay at home as they go through the deportation process. This is a necessary and crucial first step, but the administration must do more: It must release the thousands of nonviolent, low-flight-risk detainees currently in ICE custody.
ICE is fortunate that the threat posed by these detention centers can be mitigated rather easily. By releasing from custody the thousands of detainees who pose no threat to public safety and do not constitute an unmanageable flight risk, ICE can reduce the overcrowding of its detention centers, and thus make them safer, while also putting fewer people at risk.