217 Immigrant and Human Rights Groups Call on Biden Administration to Address the Spread of COVID-19 in Immigration Detention with the Immediate Release of People in ICE Custody

For Immediate Release: 
Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Washington, DC — Detention Watch Network and Freedom for Immigrants delivered a letter to the Biden-Harris administration on behalf of 215 immigrant and human rights groups demanding President Biden address the spread of COVID-19 inside immigration detention by releasing everyone within the administration’s first 100 days. Although the White House has released policy directives pausing most deportations and limiting enforcement, these memos fall short of ensuring the release of everyone from immigration detention and ending deportations—actions advocates view as critical to ensuring the health and safety of communities. 

As of January 25, ICE has confirmed eight deaths due to COVID-19 complications and 8,991 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in detention since the onset of the pandemic. However, public health experts fear the true rate of transmission in detention is much higher than publicly reported.  Advocates are deeply concerned for the health and wellbeing of the 14,195 people in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody. 

In addition to releasing people from detention the letter calls for:

  • Enacting a total moratorium on deportations for the duration of the pandemic. 
  • Enacting a moratorium on transfers between ICE facilities and from federal, state, or local custody into ICE custody for the duration of the pandemic.
  • Enacting a moratorium on all immigration-related enforcement actions, including requirements for people enrolled in any ICE supervision program to report in-person, enforcement in sensitive locations, and collateral arrests on the basis of immigration.

“ICE has proven itself incapable or unwilling to implement even basic public health protocols to mitigate against the spread of COVID-19. The agency’s actions have cost lives and directly fueled the transmission of COVID-19 in detention and our broader communities,” said Sarah Gardiner, Policy Director at Freedom for Immigrants. “The Biden-Harris administration must prioritize releasing everyone currently held in immigration detention as a matter of urgency for both human rights and public health.”

The letter details ICE’s failed pandemic response which includes inadequate access to hygiene supplies and personal protective equipment while underscoring issues endemic to the agency such as the use of solitary confinement, medical neglect and a pattern of ICE retaliation against detained people who speak out. Freedom for Immigrants documented at least 199 instances of ICE retaliation at 49 detention facilities since the onset of the pandemic, demonstrating the systemic nature of this abuse.

“The problems within the immigration detention system—including abuse and medical neglect— and the degree to which they are exacerbated by COVID-19 is clear,” said Gabriela Viera, Advocacy Manager at Detention Watch Network. “People in detention, immigration advocates and public health officials warned of these risks as early as March 2020 and made clear the only way forward was to immediately release people from detention. Under Trump’s direction ICE refused to heed these warnings and the massive public outcry demanding to ‘free them all,’ resulting in the deadliest year in ICE detention since 2005. The Biden administration must act urgently by releasing people from detention back to their families, communities and support networks until no one is in detention.”


Detention Watch Network (DWN) is a national coalition building power through collective advocacy, grassroots organizing, and strategic communications to abolish immigration detention in the United States. Founded in 1997 by immigrant rights groups, DWN brings together advocates to unify strategy and build partnerships on a local and national level. Visit detentionwatchnetwork.org. Follow on Twitter @DetentionWatch.

Freedom for Immigrants is devoted to abolishing immigration detention, while ending the isolation of people in this profit-driven system. We monitor the human rights abuses faced by immigrants through a national hotline and network of volunteers, while also modeling a community-based alternative to detention that welcomes immigrants. Through this work, we gather and compile stories in real time to combat injustice at the individual level and push systemic change. Visit www.freedomforimmigrants.org. Follow on Twitter @MigrantFreedom.