Law360 (September 1, 2020, 12:34 PM EDT) -- U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested more than 2,000 immigrants living in the U.S. without legal status in a nationwide operation this summer, the agency said Tuesday as it ramps up enforcement during the coronavirus pandemic.
ICE said the operation targeted individuals with criminal convictions involving victims, as part of the agency's promise in March to focus arrests on individuals with criminal histories.
Henry Lucero, the executive associate director of ICE's removal unit, told reporters Tuesday that "behind every arrest is a victim."
"By targeting and removing these perpetrators, ICE is strengthening public safety and protecting men, women and children from further harm," he said.
The approximately 2,000 people arrested in the summer operation, spanning from July 13 to Aug. 20, do not represent an exhaustive account of all ICE arrests during that time period. And not all of them have been convicted of crimes in the U.S.
According to ICE, about 85% of those arrested had criminal convictions, or charges, including for assault and domestic violence. The remaining 15% without criminal histories may have been picked up while agents were looking for someone else — what's known as a collateral arrest — or may have nonetheless been individually targeted.
Lucero said the agency did not have data available on how many of the arrests were collateral, but that each individual arrest was "on purpose."
While the operations were coordinated by field offices across the U.S., the Los Angeles office saw more arrests than any other, according to Lucero.
Lucero said those arrests are consistent with the agency's decision to prioritize individuals with criminal histories, even as COVID-19 ravaged the U.S.
"We never said we were going to stop arresting individuals. We said we were going to prioritize and focus on those that are public safety threats, and that's exactly what we did during this operation," he said.
ICE had previously scaled down immigration enforcement as COVID-19 spread across the U.S. In January and February this year, ICE made more than 11,000 initial book-ins in detention for arrested individuals each month. That monthly figure fell below 2,000 in May, June and July, according to ICE data.
During Tuesday's call, Lucero also said the agency has aimed to reduce the number of people in detention to curb the spread of the coronavirus, by reviewing individual high-risk cases.
ICE, on average, had about 13,700 individuals in detention on any given day in August, down from its daily average in March of more than 19,000, according to the agency's data.
Confirmed cases of the coronavirus have nonetheless crept up in immigration detention centers across the U.S., where more than 5,300 people have tested positive for COVID-19.
More than 300 individuals at the Stewart facility in southern Georgia have been diagnosed with the disease, while the LaPalma facility in Eloy, Arizona, has seen more than 350 confirmed cases.
Six individuals in ICE custody died after being diagnosed with the disease, including two at the Stewart detention center, according to the agency.
The conditions in detention centers have drawn a slew of litigation, and a number of federal judges have intervened to order ICE to release certain medically vulnerable adults and to implement basic health protocols.
A federal judge recently ordered ICE to stop transferring people in and out of the Farmville, Virginia, detention facility, where roughly 80% of the population tested positive for COVID-19.
In August, a California federal judge said ICE's failure to follow pandemic response guidelines laid out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the Adelanto facility, where more than a dozen people have tested positive, including by failing to test symptomatic individuals, "violates both the CDC guidance and common sense."
--Additional reporting by Dave Simpson.
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