A group of attorneys is demanding the release of federal immigration detainees held in New York and New Jersey citing a memorandum issued by President Joe Biden’s administration that changed who should be considered a priority for detention and deportation.
The letter from the Brooklyn Defender Services, The Legal Aid Society and The Bronx Defenders was sent Wednesday to Thomas Decker, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s District Office in New York, and seeks the prompt release of dozens of detainees they say are no longer a priority under the memo.
“We’ve been making requests that there is this memo, and our clients don’t fall under the priorities and they should be released, and they haven’t,” said Daniel Ball, spokesman for the Brooklyn Defenders Services. “As we say in the letter, they haven’t addressed that at all.”
An ICE spokesman at the New York field office said the office is implementing the priorities issued in the memo.
“ICE will continue to carry out its duty to enforce the laws of the United States in accordance with the Department’s national security and public safety mission,” said a statement from the agency.
On Jan. 20, the day of Biden’s inauguration, acting Department of Homeland Security secretary David Pekoske issued a memorandum, directing that enforcement priorities, including detentions and arrests, would focus on recent border arrivals, national security threats, and those considered a public safety threat who have been convicted of aggravated felonies. Those changes were supposed to go into effect on Feb. 1.
The memo also implemented a 100-day moratorium on certain deportations, which has since been temporarily blocked by a federal judge in Texas.
In their three-page letter, the attorneys said even though the New York Field Office has stated that ICE is implementing the memo, officers have been treating requests of release as if they were a different category. They said that releases are happening under a 2020 federal court decision that ordered immigration authorities to consider the release of detained immigrants at higher risk of complications from COVID-19.
The lawyers also allege that since the pandemic began, ICE has failed to adequately follow public health guidance to protect the health and lives of people in its custody.
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Currently, there are 531 ICE detainees who have tested positive for the virus, according to figures on the federal agency’s website. But there have been more than 9,200 confirmed cases since testing began last February.
ICE has said they are working closely with DHS and other federal, state and local agencies to keep everyone safe and helping detect and slow down the spread of COVID-19.
In New Jersey, there are four facilities that hold ICE detainees for the federal government. They are the jails in Hudson County, Bergen County and Essex County, as well as a private facility in Elizabeth. The Orange County jail in New York also holds ICE detainees for the New York field office.
As of Tuesday, there have been a total of 100 confirmed COVID-19 cases combined at all five facilities that house both New Jersey and New York residents in ICE custody, according to figures on the ICE website. The Elizabeth detention center had the most confirmed cases at 39, while Essex County had 24 confirmed cases.
Since the pandemic began, the number of those detained in ICE facilities nationwide has declined due to the pandemic. During the Trump administration, where ICE officials were ordered to step up enforcement against illegal immigration, there were more than 50,000 people held nationwide at the end of 2019. Today, that number stands at around 14,775.
Monsy Alvarado is the immigration reporter for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news about one of the hottest issues in our state and country, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.