The COVID-19 pandemic has taken an unprecedented toll on our country. While the virus has permeated every sector of our society, it has left one community particularly vulnerable: detained immigrants.

Immigrants in detention experience lasting trauma, the threat of permanent separation from family and community and barriers to accessing legal counsel. Now those in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers face a critical threat to their health due to COVID-19.

As the elected leaders of Ramsey County and the city of St. Paul, we are concerned that continued detention of individuals by ICE threatens the safety and health of the detained immigrants, detention facility staff and the surrounding community. The lack of necessary health care support, compounded with the limited possibility of physical distancing within detention facilities, puts immigrants in an untenable situation that violates human dignity and collective well-being. Keeping people detained in immigration custody will only magnify the outbreak.

Ramsey County and the city of St. Paul already partner to provide deportation defense to help individuals in detention who cannot afford legal representation through the SAFE (Safety and Fairness for Everyone) Network convened by the Vera Institute of Justice. Providing government-funded lawyers for people in immigrant court is an effective and widely supported way to ensure that everyone is treated with basic fairness and dignity.

But now we are facing an even more urgent crisis that must be addressed immediately. As of April 29, 425 detainees, 36 ICE employees working at detention centers and 92 ICE employees not working at detention centers have tested positive for COVID-19 nationally. These numbers continue to rise. The Minnesota Department of Corrections has already taken action to reduce the state’s prison population and prevent the spread of the virus in these high-density facilities. Counties, including Ramsey County, are taking similar action at their jails. It is only a matter of time before we begin observing confirmed COVID-19 cases in Minnesota ICE detention facilities if similar, proactive measures are not taken to reduce the immigrant detainee population.

This is why we call on ICE officials to immediately release immigrants in detention who do not pose a threat to public safety, starting with individuals in high-risk categories, such as people 60 and over, women who are pregnant and people with chronic illnesses, compromised immune systems or disabilities. ICE must take action to prevent transmission among those who remain in its custody: ICE needs to immediately test people who exhibit symptoms and/or present risk factors. Delayed testing increases the risk of spread.

In addition, ICE must ensure that proper hygienic supplies are available at all facilities housing immigration detainees, must widely disseminate information about alternatives to in-person check-ins for individuals on order of supervision, and must immediately halt the transfer of immigration detainees between detention facilities.

We urge other local government leaders, whose duty it is to protect and represent their residents, to join us in demanding the implementation of the measures identified above to ensure that immigrants in detention who already face undue hurdles to health care and legal access, are able to experience sufficient personal autonomy to maximize their safety from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Immigrants in ICE detention are more than mere statistics. They are human beings with deep ties to our communities. We cannot leave them behind as we tackle this virus head-on.


Melvin Carter is the mayor of St. Paul. Toni Carter is chair of the Ramsey County Board. This article is also submitted on behalf of Commissioners Jim McDonough, Victoria Reinhardt, Mary Jo McGuire, Rafael E. Ortega, Nicole Joy Frethem and Trista MatasCastillo.