Quarantine: Good for Americans, Good for Detained Aliens

CBS News recently published excerpts of interviews with female detained aliens, arguing that continued confinement puts their lives at risk. The piece opens with this assertion, “Like many of the roughly 34,000 immigrants currently held by ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement], the women feel powerless to protect themselves from the deadly contagion, which has already infected at least 72 detainees and 19 employees in more than two dozen facilities across 11 states.”

Apparently, CBS is as woefully ignorant of basic math as it is about U.S. immigration law. Any fifth grader could tell you that those numbers indicate the following: In the 11 states referenced, roughly 8 people in a detention setting have become infected with Novel Coronavirus. 

That is clearly a cause for concern. No decent human being wishes to see anyone infected with a potentially lethal virus, even lawbreakers. But is it a legitimate reason to go releasing people who have defied our immigration laws, especially when we know that they are likely to disappear, never to be seen again? To answer that question using statistics as a guide, we need more data. And CBS didn’t bother to provide any of that information.

With the inclusion of those omitted facts, let’s take a look at CBS’s assertions in context. As CBS points out there are roughly 34,000 detainees in ICE custody at present. In addition, there are approximately 6,100 ICE enforcement and removal officers. (Not all of those officers work in a detention setting. However, all of them go in and out of detention centers to process and transport immigration violators.) There are also an unknown number of U.S. Marshals Service and U.S. Public Health Service officials who regularly interact with immigration detainees.

ICE doesn’t publish statistics on the number of staff employed by state and local detention facilities with which it has contracts. Nor does it publish data regarding staffing levels at the private detention centers it uses. However, let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that combined state/local/private staffing is equal to ICE’s and sits at around 6,100 people. (In reality, it may be larger than ICE’s detention workforce).

That would mean there are roughly 46,000 people in the potential COVID-19 infection cohort that revolves around ICE detention. If there are currently 91 infections, the infection rate is roughly 0.2 percent of ICE’s detention-focused population (detainees and detention staff). The infection rate for the general population is – you guessed it – roughly 0.2 percent.

Far from being the deathtrap that CBS has represented, being in a detained environment – which is, in essence, a form of quarantine – exposes detainees to exactly the same risk being experienced by everyone else in the United States. So, the answer to the question posed above is: No, the COVID-19 outbreak is not a valid reason to release immigration violators, especially when we know they are likely to disappear, never to be seen again.

CBS also overlooked another pertinent fact. Everyone being detained by ICE has an easy way out of the lockup. They can ask to be sent home. Immigration detention is civil. Nobody in ICE custody is serving a punitive sentence. The purpose of immigration detention is to ensure an alien’s presence at an immigration hearing.

The vast majority of foreign nationals locked up by ICE unnecessarily prolong their own detention by pursuing baseless claims to relief from removal. If those claims are dropped, and an immigration violator admits that he/she has broken our laws, then release from detention becomes a fairly rapid process. Did you notice that no one interviewed by CBS asked to be sent home? Instead, they are all demanding release in the United States.

With enough information to understand what’s really going on, CBS’s tearjerker interviews with foreign law-breakers seem to be a complete sham. Rather than a science-based effort to ensure that detainees are treated humanely, they are a cynical, calculated effort to exploit a public health crisis in order to further an open borders agenda.

About Author


Matthew J. O’Brien joined the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in 2016. Matt is responsible for managing FAIR’s research activities. He also writes content for FAIR’s website and publications. Over the past twenty years he has held a wide variety of positions focusing on immigration issues, both in government and in the private sector. Immediately prior to joining FAIR Matt served as the Chief of the National Security Division (NSD) within the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate (FDNS) at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), where he was responsible for formulating and implementing procedures to protect the legal immigration system from terrorists, foreign intelligence operatives, and other national security threats. He has also held positions as the Chief of the FDNS Policy and Program Development Unit, as the Chief of the FDNS EB-5 Division, as Assistant Chief Counsel with U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement, as a Senior Advisor to the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman, and as a District Adjudications Officer with the legacy Immigration & Naturalization Service. In addition, Matt has extensive experience as a private bar attorney. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in French from the Johns Hopkins University and a Juris Doctor from the University of Maine School of Law.