During the deadly first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was clear that the sheer number of people having to live in the communal space of immigration detention made abiding by COVID-19 safety protocols impossible. In response, detainees, medical professionals, activists, and politicians called for ICE to exercise its discretion to release some or all immigration detainees as the best way to prevent detention centers from being major points of COVID-19 transmission and to protect medically vulnerable detainees. During an April 17, 2020 congressional hearing, Acting Director of ICE, Matthew T. Albence stated that ICE had released only 700 immigration detainees with medical vulnerabilities out of a total population of about 32,000 detainees. Even though there were clearly far more people at risk, Albence stated that ICE did not intend to release any additional individuals because it feared releasing more people would signal that the United States was “not enforcing our immigration laws” and would create a “rush at the borders.” This is a prime example of how the existence of persons with disabilities or with medical vulnerabilities are not considered in the immigration detention context in general and how this had severe and life-threatening consequences during the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, dozens of lawsuits sought the release of medical vulnerable detainees due to ICE’s inadequate efforts to protect the detainee population. In lawsuit after lawsuit, ICE was found to have failed to take safety precautions to control the spread of COVID-19 in detention and to have failed to identify medically vulnerable individuals who were at the highest risk from COVID-19.
— J.C. Salyer