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160 Organizations Call on White House, DHS to Implement a Meaningful Case Review Process for 14,000 People at Risk in Immigrant Detention

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, 160 immigrant rights and legal services organizations called on the Biden administration to implement an effective case review process to consider the release of nearly 14,000 people who remain in immigration detention, at grave risk of contracting COVID-19, more than a year into the pandemic.

Many of these individuals should not be subjected to detention or deportation based on the administration’s most recent memo outlining enforcement priorities, the advocates say in a letter sent to the White House, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Tae Johnson. The case review process ICE created in early March, they say, has been “woefully inadequate” because it channels detained immigrants’ requests for release to biased ICE field office directors who prefer to use their authority to keep people detained. The process also has been harmfully weighted against individuals who do not have legal representation and people with past criminal convictions, ignoring other positive factors that should favor their release.

The advocates sent the letter just over a week after the first death in ICE custody occurred under President Biden’s watch. A 45-year-old man from Colombia was hospitalized and later died while he was waiting for his first asylum screening in immigration detention.

“We are frightened for our clients and community members whose lives, health, and safety are at risk in ICE custody, and frustrated at the lack of access to meaningful consideration of release pursuant to the administration’s own priorities and commitment to equity,” the letter says.

Advocates are calling for the administration to move the review process under the authority of the Homeland Security secretary and out of the control of ICE field office directors and to expedite case reviews for people at heightened risk of serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19. The process also should encourage ICE to exercise its discretion to release individuals for urgent humanitarian reasons, even if someone’s legal case falls under mandatory custody laws.

The letter highlights six people whose ongoing detention violates the Biden administration’s current enforcement policies:

  • Moris, who has lived in the U.S. for 29 years and whose entire nuclear family are citizens or lawful permanent residents, has had his requests for release denied without any explanation even though he does not meet any of the administration’s current priorities for enforcement. His plans to marry his U.S. citizen fiancée, which would have allowed him to petition for lawful status, were disrupted by rules implemented during the pandemic at the jail where he has been detained. Moris is represented by Mariposa Legal. For more information, contact Hannah Cartwright.
     
  • Ubaldo Ochoa-López was separated from his six-year-old son by the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy in 2018 when they came together to the U.S. from Guatemala in search of asylum. They were subsequently reunited only to be separated again when ICE detained Ubaldo five months ago. Ubaldo is unambiguously outside the February 18th enforcement priorities, with one misdemeanor conviction for driving under the influence and tremendous community support. Ubaldo’s son cries when they speak on the phone, now enduring a second separation from his father at the government’s hands. Ubaldo is represented by RAICES. For more information, contact Lucia Allain.
     
  • Christopher has lived in the U.S. for more than 15 years and supports his wife, who has serious and chronic physical and mental health issues, and their three stepchildren. ICE has detained Christopher for nearly 13 months, and his deportation is now imminent, threatening to leave his family facing severe financial insecurity. Christopher was transferred to immigration custody after facing criminal charges, but those charges were terminated after the prosecution declined to proceed. His request for release was summarily denied through the ICE case review process. Christopher, who is being publicly identified by a pseudonym, is being supported by members of the Free Them All VA Coalition. For more information, contact Amber Qureshi.
     
  • Laura is a transgender woman who was detained by ICE and had previously been ordered removed despite fear of return to her country of origin. In February, Laura’s attorneys submitted an emergency stay of removal request on her behalf, arguing that she should not be subject to removal per the Biden administration’s original enforcement memo. She was deported on February 25, after her stay request was denied, and just hours after her request for release was also denied through ICE’s centralized case review process. Laura, who is being publicly identified by a pseudonym, is represented by Immigration Equality. For more information contact Kristen Thompson.
     
  • Jonathan has been detained for over a year because of two convictions from approximately 16 years ago. Jonathan suffers from asthma, elevated blood pressure, adjustment disorder, and depression. He has made significant efforts to prepare to re-enter society having served his criminal sentence, including converting to a religion where he has found meaning, learning English, and participating in life-skills programming while in custody. The ICE case review process resulted in a denial of Jonathan’s requested release, with no analysis or discussion of the evidence presented. In fact, the denial included multiple factual errors, including naming the wrong detention facility. Jonathan is being publicly identified by a pseudonym.
     
  • Robert Panton, who a federal court ruled should be released from prison in August 2020 because his numerous underlying conditions put him at heightened risk of COVID-19 and because his record during his time in custody left “no doubt” that he had “fully rehabilitated himself.” Yet upon his release he was immediately transferred to ICE custody, where he has languished for more than seven months. His requests for release through the ICE case review process have been met with summary denials. Robert is represented by the National Immigrant Justice Center. For more information, contact Tara Tidwell Cullen.