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Law360 (April 13, 2020, 3:46 PM EDT) -- Democrats unveiled legislation in the House and Senate on Monday to release the majority of immigrants in civil detention and limit immigration enforcement during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., announced the introduction of a bill that would mandate the release of anyone in immigration detention who doesn't pose a threat to public safety, including asylum-seekers and individuals with minor drug possession convictions.
Jayapal said that she expects the "vast majority" of people in immigration detention facilities to be released under this legislation. There have been 72 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, among U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees, and 19 confirmed cases among ICE employees who work at detention centers, according to the agency.
"We have a responsibility as a federal government to these folks who depend on the government literally for everything in their lives, to protect immigrants by removing them from these dangerous detention centers," Jayapal told reporters Monday.
A number of federal judges have ordered ICE to release medically vulnerable individuals, with one Pennsylvania federal judge warning that keeping those individuals in detention could lead to an "unconscionable and possibly barbaric result." But those court orders are "not enough," Jayapal said.
The legislation, dubbed the Federal Immigrant Release for Safety and Security Together, or FIRST, Act would require that nonviolent individuals over 50, or under 21, be immediately freed from immigration detention, as well as anyone with a medical condition that leaves them at risk of contracting the virus, during a national emergency stemming from an outbreak of a communicable disease, the lawmakers said.
It would also prevent ICE from arresting and detaining individuals who aren't a threat to public safety and bar the agency from conducting enforcement actions at hospitals during a pandemic.
Booker, whose home state of New Jersey has seen more than a dozen confirmed coronavirus cases among ICE detainees, said the bill is "a matter of life and death," warning that keeping people detained unnecessarily threatens both those in the facility as well as the ICE employees, their families and surrounding communities who could be infected as a result of an outbreak at a detention center.
"Those who are being held and those who work there are being unnecessarily put at grave risk," Booker said.
An ICE spokesperson declined to comment on the bill itself but said in a statement to Law360 that the agency "is reviewing cases of individuals in detention who may be vulnerable to the virus" and that decisions regarding individuals requesting release "occur every day on a case-by-case basis."
The legislation has garnered 22 original co-sponsors in the House, including Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who leads the House Judiciary Committee, according to the bill's sponsors.
But it could face tough odds in the GOP-controlled Senate. Jayapal and Booker said they were hopeful that the bill could gain momentum and appeal to politicians on both sides of the aisle, noting that reducing ICE detention numbers will also save taxpayer dollars.
Jayapal said that the bill could either be passed on its own, or passed as part of a wider relief package, and that the lawmakers are "working both of those fronts."
--Editing by Abbie Sarfo.
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