ICE's Detainee Population Has Declined More Than 20 Percent Since March Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

The number of people detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has shrunk by more than 20 percent since the beginning of March amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement shared with Newsweek, an ICE spokesperson said the agency's detained population nationwide has declined by nearly 9,000 people.

As of February 29, they said, ICE had 38,537 immigrant detainees held under the agency's custody. By April 25, however, that number had declined to 29,675, shrinking more than 20 percent.

Part of the decline, ICE said, is due to the agency releasing hundreds of detainees as it continues to face lawsuits and subsequent court orders demanding that it reduce populations at its detention facilities to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Last month, for example, a federal judge in Los Angeles ordered ICE to reduce the number of detainees at its Adelanto ICE Processing Center in California so detainees can practice safe social distancing amid the pandemic.

In his ruling, Judge Terry Hatter said the facility would need to reduce the number of detainees so those who remain at the facility can maintain a safe distance of six feet apart from each other.

As part of that effort, the judge had ordered ICE to release at least 100 detainees by April 27, with another 150 detainees expected to have been released by April 30.

The judge had said detainees older than 55 and those who have pre-existing conditions should be given priority, as well as detainees with no criminal history.

So far, the ICE spokesperson said, nearly 700 immigration detainees have been released from custody nationwide "pursuant to an agency-wide review for specific conditions that potentially make an individual more susceptible to serious illness due to COVID-19 infection."

"ICE has a long history of handling communicable diseases in the course of everyday operations and maintains emergency and contingency pandemic plans," the statement said. "The agency has modified its enforcement posture, detention operations, and visitation practices to ensure that individuals in the agency's custody and its employees remain safe."

In addition to the release of detainees, ICE arrests have also shrunk considerably since mid-March in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement published on its website, ICE said that as of March 18, it had "temporarily" adjusted its enforcement plans in order to "ensure the welfare and safety of the general public as well as officers and agents" amid the coronavirus outbreak.

"ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) will focus enforcement on public-safety risks and individuals subject to mandatory detention based on criminal grounds," the agency said. "For those individuals who do not fall into those categories, ERO will exercise discretion to delay enforcement actions until after the crisis or use alternatives to detention, as appropriate."

ICE's Homeland Security Investigations is continuing to carry out missions deemed "critical" in order to "maintain public safety and national security," ICE has said.

Such investigations would include cases involving child exploitation, human trafficking, human smuggling, gangs and narcotics trafficking.

While ICE's detained population has declined in recent weeks, a number of immigration advocacy groups have continued to call on the agency to release all detainees considered vulnerable to coronavirus.

Since ICE began testing amid the coronavirus pandemic, the agency has so far seen 606 detainees test positive for COVID-19.

With 1,285 detainees having so far been tested, that means nearly half of those tested for COVID-19 have been found to have the virus.

Meanwhile, to date, 39 ICE workers at immigration detention facilities have also tested positive for coronavirus, with another 99 ICE workers not assigned to detention facilities also testing positive for the virus.

A sheriff's deputy talks to an immigration detainee in a high security housing unit at the Theo Lacy Facility, a county jail which also houses immigration detainees arrested by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement on March 14, 2017 in Orange, California, about 32 miles (52km) southeast of Los Angeles. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty