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Top DHS Official Says ICE Won't Release Detainees Just To Avoid COVID-19 Risk

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf talks after touring the San Diego/Tijuana border on May 13, 2020.
Pool photo via 10News
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf talks after touring the San Diego/Tijuana border on May 13, 2020.

Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf toured the San Diego/Tijuana border from a Coast Guard helicopter on Wednesday, as the Trump administration continues border wall construction between the two cities.

At a press briefing afterward at the Coast Guard station on Harbor Drive, he said that Immigration and Customs Enforcement will not be releasing detainees just to avoid exposing them to COVID-19.

“What we’re not going to do is release all of the detainees in our care. It’s irresponsible … it’s irresponsible to the communities we release them into,” Wolf said. “So we’re going to do this in a much more targeted effort, case by case basis, looking at individual cases, referring them to public health officials, and making sure they get the medical care they deserve.”

Wolf also said since the pandemic, almost all migrants apprehended along the southern border are now returned to Mexico within two hours. He says this is in the interest of public safety and includes those seeking asylum.

RELATED: Detainee Who Died From Coronavirus At Otay Mesa Detention Center Eligible For Release

Wolf also said he met with San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Sheriff Bill Gore to discuss people legally crossing the border to seek coronavirus treatment, but did not go into specifics about how DHS plans to support the region. Wolf added that despite Customs and Border Protection saying that it planned on instituting temperature checks at border crossings, there are no current plans to do so.

In a separate event nearby, a group of medical professionals held a vigil outside of the county administration building, calling for the release of civil immigration detainees during the coronavirus pandemic. They were part of a nationwide movement by doctors known as “Doctors for Camp Closure."

The Otay Mesa Detention Center currently has the largest outbreak in immigration detention in the country, with 149 confirmed cases of coronavirus. One detainee who was being held there died last week of COVID-19.

“As you’re aware, we had our first COVID death last week, and it was an entirely preventable situation. Otay Mesa Detention Center is not able to provide physical distancing, not able to provide adequate protection for the people who are housed there,” said Tari Gilbert, a nurse practitioner who was taking part in the vigil.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed two class-action lawsuits calling for the release of detainees. A federal judge has ordered the release of those immigration detainees considered medically vulnerable.