WASHINGTON, D.C. – Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) today unveiled new legislation, called the Federal Immigrant Release for Safety and Security Together (FIRST) Act, that would move immigrants out of detention and halt immigration enforcement against individuals not deemed a significant public safety risk during this coronavirus public health emergency and future health emergencies.
The bill comes as a growing number of immigrants in federal custody are testing positive for COVID-19. According to data released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), 16 of the 72 immigrants who have tested positive nationally are located at detention centers in New Jersey, the highest of any other state. Each of New Jersey’s four facilities that house ICE detainees have reported cases of COVID-19 among its staff and detainees, and the first immigrant detainee to test positive for COVID-19 in the U.S. was from a detention center in New Jersey.
Full text of the bill is available here.
“Detention centers are like a ticking time bomb - they are severely at risk for a COVID-19 outbreak, considering the close quarters in which detainees are housed and a population with much higher rates of underlying health issues,” Booker said. “We have an obligation to do everything we can to prevent the spread of this deadly disease, and that means moving people out of detention centers when they do not pose a public safety risk. This is really a matter of life and death: it’s time that we act quickly and decisively to save as many lives as possible, and that means ending the unnecessary detention of immigrants during this public health crisis.”
“The federal government is entirely responsible for the safety and wellbeing of immigrants in detention centers and Congress must ensure that ICE is heeding critical public health guidance and keeping immigrants and our communities safe from infection,” Jayapal said. “By reducing the number of people held in ICE detention centers and making sure those who remain in detention have access to needed soap and proper hygiene products, the FIRST Act reduces the risk to spreading disease and protects immigrants and our public health. We are in the midst of a public health crisis that has upended all of our daily lives, and we have a moral obligation to look out for the most vulnerable people among us.”
In addition to these key tenets, the bill would also modify in-person reporting requirements, suspend collateral arrests, make telephone calls and video-conferencing available for detained immigrants free of charge (since in-person visits have been temporarily suspended), and ensure that soap, hand sanitizer, and other necessary hygiene products are provided free of charge to immigrants in detention (recent reports have revealed that these basic sanitation supplies are not being provided at many detention centers across the country.)
Despite reports that ICE would alter enforcement priorities as the country grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, officials within the Department of Homeland Security have sent mixed signals about how enforcement priorities will be modified to address the crisis.
It’s estimated that roughly 37,000 immigrants are detained nationally, with about 1,200 located at one of four facilities in New Jersey.
Under the bill, individuals moved out of immigration detention would not be forced to return to detention once the public health emergency has lifted unless an individualized determination is made that the person is a threat to public safety or alternatives to detention are insufficient to guarantee attendance at immigration proceedings.
In the Senate, the bill is cosponsored by Senators Warren, Harris, Sanders, Gillibrand, and Hirono.
Since the onset of the coronavirus crisis, Booker has worked to ensure that vulnerable individuals in detention centers and prisons around the country were moved out of such dangerous confinement. Last month he authored legislation that would move thousands of vulnerable people in federal prisons out of prison and last week he announced a bill to incentivize states to similarly reduce their prison populations. He has also urged ICE, CBP, and DHS to halt enforcement operations against individuals who are not a public safety risk and to move individuals out of detention facilities.