ICE family detention facilities running at 7% capacity during coronavirus pandemic

The Trump administration says that it’s running family detention facilities at just 7% capacity during the coronavirus pandemic as it tries to prevent an outbreak.

No illegal immigrant has contracted coronavirus in the federal government’s three family detention centers, but five new arrivals have tested positive for COVID-19, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

That included three adults and two juveniles. Only one of them showed symptoms, ICE reported in filings to a federal court late Monday.

The data comes as the administration battles in the courts with immigrant-rights activists, who have demanded a large-scale release of families, citing the pandemic.

ICE says it’s released some illegal immigrant families and is detaining others at a slower pace, which has helped keep the population down at the three family detention centers. The Berks facility in Pennsylvania is working at 20% capacity; the Karnes facility in Texas is at 9% capacity; and the South Texas Family Residential Center, by far the largest with 2,400 beds, has just 142 people, or just 6% of capacity.

But the agency has rebuffed calls to empty the facilities altogether.

U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee, an Obama appointee in the Central District of California, has been pushing ICE for releases, and ordered the agency to try to work out a process with the families and their lawyers.

But ICE appealed her ruling this week.

The agency says Judge Gee’s framework creates a tricky situation. If parents don’t agree to release their children to foster families, then ICE says it would either have to release the family as a whole — creating a perverse incentive for parents to bring children as a way to get out of detention — or else release the children without parents, and risk being accused of family separations.

The administration is still reeling from the fallout of family separations in 2018, during the zero-tolerance border policy.

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