Federal immigration authorities arrested far fewer people in Colorado and Wyoming during fiscal year 2020 than in previous years, and the COVID-19 pandemic was the primary reason.
From October 2019 through September 2020, the Denver branch of ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), which covers the two states, arrested just 1,433 people. During fiscal year 2019, ICE arrested 2,408 individuals; the total number of arrests was around 2,750 in 2018 and in 2017.
"During the COVID-19 pandemic, ICE ERO decreased its detained population to allow for social distancing, temporarily adjusted its enforcement posture to narrowly focus on criminal aliens and public safety threats, and received far fewer intakes from [Customs and Border Protections]," ICE explains on its website.
Those national changes impacted the number of local arrests. "Pandemic safety measures, along with extremely low numbers of CBP apprehensions, resulted in temporary decreases in many of ICE ERO’s traditional metrics during the course of the year," says Alethea Smock, a local Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson.
The detainee population at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility, where ICE incarcerates individuals that it views as deportable, reflects the result of decreased enforcement.
The facility, which is run by private prison company GEO Group, has a capacity for 1,532 ICE detainees. However, at the end of 2020, the population was under 250, well below its pre-pandemic level. But the pandemic has made itself felt in ways beyond reduced arrests: As of January 14, 39 detainees at the Aurora facility were positive for COVID-19, bringing the total number of cases among detainees at the facility during the pandemic to 168.
In a September 2020 inspection report, the office of Congressman Jason Crow noted that the ICE ERO Denver field office director had told Crow that he'd "released a large number of detainees to either humanitarian parole or alternatives to detention."
"ICE got yelled at and sued enough to finally show a shred of compassion and common sense to tamp down their particularly dangerous operations during a pandemic," says Arash Jahanian, director of policy and civil rights litigation at the Meyer Law Office. Early on during the pandemic, he explains, multiple Aurora detainees sued ICE in federal court over conditions that encouraged the spread of COVID-19, asking a judge to compel the federal agency to release them. One of those detainees succeeded in securing his release through a judge's order, while ICE released a handful of others who had sued.
But Jahanian's colleague, Hans Meyer, has a somewhat different view. "I agree that it's the pandemic, but don't agree with Arash that ICE was responsive to litigation or pressure or gives a shit," he says. "I think they mostly just wanted to avoid getting COVID. None of the litigation related to ICE arrests; it all related to ICE releases. But maybe I'm just being too cynical."
In a December 2020 report, Crow's office noted that a total of 120 GEO Group employees at the facility had contracted COVID-19 over the course of the pandemic.
While the total number of people arrested by ICE in Colorado and Wyoming in fiscal year 2020 was down, the percentage of "convicted criminals" — a category that covers everyone from an individual with a DUI conviction to a convicted murderer — was at 73 percent, about in line with the percentage in recent years. Those statistics reflect the fact that while enforcement was down, its focus remained the same.
"Any arrest is too many," says Ian Pham, communications manager for CIRC Action Fund. "The only newsworthy element here is that immigration enforcement is still being continued during this pandemic. Every arrest represents a potential point of transmission of the virus, and every person detained represents increased overcrowding at detention centers, heightening the risk of an outbreak. 198 ICE employees have tested positive for COVID since the beginning of the pandemic, including 45 working at detention centers; 6,387 people detained by ICE have tested positive, and eight people have died. (This statistic doesn't include anyone who tested positive or died of COVID after being released from detention or deported)."
Whether the arrest numbers will remain at their current level going forward, even after the pandemic, will largely depend on the presidential administration of Joe Biden, according to Meyer.
"The decrease in ICE arrests during COVID clearly demonstrates that a reduction in Gestapo-style immigration enforcement — much like smart criminal justice reform to respond to the failed War on Drugs — can easily be accomplished without impacting public safety," Meyer says. "The Biden administration must unequivocally reject the Trump administration's executive order on enforcement and clearly reset the agency's priorities. That's the only way. It's a critical step to extract us from the lunacy and thinly veiled racism of the last four years and instead implement immigration policies that reflect a functional and free democracy."
This story has been updated to include Ian Pham's comment.
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