According to ICE detention statistics, on March 21 ICE was holding just over 38,000 people. On March 28 the number was down to 35,671; by April 4 the number was 33,863. Which means over the last two weeks the number of people in ICE detentions has fallen by 4,200, or just over 11%. As we, and many other people have been advocating releases, this seems like good news.
However, is ICE actually releasing people on a large scale? It does not seem to be the case. The Global Detention Project estimated that only 200 people had been released in recent weeks by ICE under pressure from advocates for humanitarian parole. Rather, it seems that the decline is the result of a drop in book-ins to ICE facilities, coupled with ICE continuing to deport people at a significant pace.
The first point to make is that fewer people are being booked into ICE facilities. Those transferred from Customs and Border Patrol to ICE hit its lowest level this year during March. This decline is the result of fewer people trying to get into the United States, and, more to the point, the fact the U.S. is simply sending those people who make it back across the border to Mexico without processing them. This policy was established under an emergency order issued by Trump - and if it lasts long enough to go to court, will almost certainly be overturned. But for now, CBP is holding fewer people, and thus transferring fewer people for longer term detention in ICE facilities. Book-ins from CBP were 9,218 for March, nearly 2,000 less than in February, and the lowest monthly total this fiscal year.
The number of people booked into ICE facilities as the result of internal enforcement operations (CBP detentions are generally the result of enforcement actions at, or near the border) also declined in March, though was still over 10,000. In mid-March, Mark Albence announced that ICE would be reducing its enforcement operations to focus exclusively on removals of people with criminal convictions. Reportedly, Albence was raked over the coals within the White House for this announcement, as it had not been approved in advance. So we’ll see how long it lasts. The decline in book-ins in March was not great however, and through the first 3 days of April, 886 people were detained as the result of internal removal operations. This represents too few days to make much of a guess at April numbers, but if this early daily average were to hold, the total book ins would be near 9,000 people - lower than recent months to be sure, but still a lot of people. For March the total was 10,100 - lower than February or January, but higher than November or December. An important trend here is that internal removal operations are now higher than CBP transfers as the source for ICE detention for the first time in well over a year, if not longer.
So, one reason the overall numbers are down is a significant decline in those transferred into ICE’s massive detention network. However, this doesn’t explain how people are getting out. If the Global Detention Project’s estimates are correct, and relatively few people are getting released as a result of humanitarian parole (+/- 200), then there must be another source for the 11% fall in detentions over the last two weeks.
The main source of the decline in detention numbers seems to be deportations. Of the 33,800 people in ICE detention right now, 12,000 are slated for expedited removal. So, many of these people may be gone by the end of April - offsetting any increase from ongoing enforcement actions.
Of great concern is the related fact that Immigration and Customs Enforcement has continued regular deportation flights with only a brief pause to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and in the last week has also flown people into Haiti, Colombia and Nicaragua. And, of course, ICE has been deporting the largest group of people back across the border into Mexico, as it regularly does.
Deportation flights have become the source of growing criticism of ICE and the Trump administration’s immigration policies in the time of coronavirus. COVID-19 is now present throughout ICEs facilities, and will only grow in the coming weeks. ICE’s lack of preparation and discernible care for the people in its custody during this pandemic has been documented over and over- most recently, by Amnesty International in a scathing report released earlier this week. And yet ICE continues to move people around within its detention network, and is still deporting people to countries, almost all of whom have otherwise closed their borders and shuttered international airports. All of these countries are now forced to spend precious resources managing arrivals from the United States - which is now the location of nearly one-third of the globe's confirmed cases.
So, ICE practices have become a significant source in the transnational spreading of coronavirus in the Americas. There have been 3 confirmed cases of people deported to Guatemala with COVID-19, and many other people arriving with flu-like symptoms to other countries. The attorney for a Hatian man due to be deported this week noted that his client had been in two different facilities in one week - both of which had confirmed cases of COVID-19 among either staff or people being detained. He was pulled off the deportation flight at the last minute, but none of the other 61 people on the flight to Haiti were tested for COVID-19.
I would love to celebrate the decline in the number of people being held detention by ICE. And, all things considered, it is certainly better news than an increase in those numbers. But underlying the decline are disturbing practices; practices that in the context of a global pandemic rise to a level of indifference and irresponsibility that is shocking even for this administration's already low bar on ethical behavior.
ICE must halt deportations AND release people from detention...NOW.