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Former ICE Acting Director, Doctors, Human Rights Advocates Call for Swift Release of Immigrants from Detention to Prevent COVID-19 Spread

This afternoon, the former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), John Sandweg, joined forces with doctors and human rights advocates to call for the immediate reduction of immigration detention occupancy to prevent further spread of COVID-19. Sandweg was joined by Dr. Ranit Mishori, senior medical advisor at Physicians for Human Rights, and Eleanor Acer, the director of refugee protection at Human Rights First. They spoke to the urgent action needed to avoid an unmitigated public health disaster, calling to release asylum seekers and immigrants from detention as soon as possible.

A full video of the media briefing can be viewed here.

“There is still time to save lives, but the window is closing rapidly,” said Dr. Ranit Mishori, senior medical advisor at Physicians for Human Rights. “We call on ICE, state, and federal officials to act now to protect the health and human rights of immigrant communities across the country. Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures. By releasing all people in immigration detention facilities to community-based alternatives, we will save the lives of immigrants, facility staff, their families, and the broader public.” 

“ICE detention facilities, like any jail or prison, are susceptible to outbreaks of infectious diseases,” said John Sandweg, former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “The simple reason is the design of the facilities is such that you cannot engage in the kind of social distancing practices that we’re all being required to adhere to now. ICE has the authority to release all individuals, it has absolute discretion. This can be done in a way that promotes public health and protects public safety. This is a very simple, common sense thing for ICE to do, not only to protect the detainees but also to protect ICE agents themselves.” 

“It is more important than ever for governors and other state officials to push for drastic reductions in facilities detaining asylum seekers and other immigrants,” said Eleanor Acer, director of refugee protection at Human Rights First. Despite the grave risks to asylum seekers, immigrants, facility staff, and public health, the Department of Homeland Security and ICE are still dragging their feet and refusing to act. The continued failure to take action is a recipe for disaster – a human rights and public health disaster that endangers lives.” 

All three participants are available for interview. Please contact: 

Human Rights First:, (202) 412 -4270

Physicians for Human Rights:, (917) 679-0110

In The Atlantic last week, Sandweg, who oversaw the detention and deportation of immigrants under the Obama administration, called on the Trump administration to release the thousands of nonviolent, low-flight-risk detainees currently in ICE custody. On March 17, Human Rights First, Physicians for Human Rights, and Amnesty International USA wrote to ICE and 17 U.S. governors asking them to act swiftly to reduce the detention population. 

After the first ICE employee working at a detention facility tested positive for coronavirus, medical experts and human rights advocates renewed their calls for action, arguing that releases must begin immediately. Two immigrants in detention facilities have already tested positive for coronavirus as of Thursday evening, according to ICE. Public health experts say that what happens next will be determined by what actions the Department of Homeland Security and government officials take now to protect the health and human rights of immigrants, facility staff, and the broader public.

The New Jersey Star-Ledger published an editorial on Thursday calling for ICE to act, and, failing that, for Governor Phil Murphy to limit building occupancy capacity, in order to advance a decision to release detainees. New Jersey is the site where the ICE employee working at a detention center tested positive for coronavirus and, later, two immigrants in detention also tested positive. 


About Human Rights First

Human Rights First is an independent advocacy and action organization that challenges America to live up to its ideals. For 40 years the organization has worked to press the U.S. government and private companies to respect human rights and the rule of law. When they fail, Human Rights First steps in to demand reform, accountability and justice. Human Rights First is based in New York, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles.

About Physicians for Human Rights

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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