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A Local Sheriff Said No To More Immigrant Detainees Because Of Coronavirus Fears, So ICE Transferred Them All To New Facilities

“The sheriff wanted to protect the current jail population that we had, along with the employees we have here and the staff at the facility, from the spread of the virus,” a sheriff's spokesperson said.

Posted on March 18, 2020, at 6:24 p.m. ET

Chris Carlson / AP

A guard walks a with a detainee in an intake area at an ICE processing center.

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Federal officials rushed to transfer more than 100 immigrants from a Wisconsin county jail in recent days after the sheriff’s department said it would no longer house any additional detainees to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials rely on a network of local and private jails across the country to detain nearly 38,000 immigrants. The agency has said that it is being proactive in testing any potential cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and providing guidance to detention centers to help prevent an outbreak. Families and friends of detainees have been restricted from visiting ICE detention centers as a precautionary measure.

The Kenosha County Sheriff’s Office decided late last week that bringing new ICE detainees into its facility represented too great a risk to other inmates and staff. On Friday, after Wisconsin officials issued emergency declarations over the pandemic, the sheriff informed ICE that it would no longer take any new detainees within its jail. ICE was told, however, that the existing detainees could remain at the facility, said Sgt. David Wright, a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office.

But early Sunday, officials from a separate county picked up all 170 ICE detainees from the jail and transferred them to other facilities in the region, Wright said, which caught the Sheriff’s Office off guard.

“They didn’t like the answer we gave them when we told them we wouldn’t take any new ones,” he said. “The sheriff believes this would definitely free up some of our resources. He was okay with it because it took a lot of stress and burden off of our employees.”

ICE officials said the detainees who were housed at Kenosha County have been moved to Texas and Illinois.

“In order to accommodate various operational demands, ICE routinely transfers detainees within its detention network based on available resources and the needs of the agency. As is appropriate, ICE coordinates with the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which administers the nation’s immigration courts, to ensure the continuity of any ongoing legal proceedings,” an ICE official said in a statement.

For more than 15 years, ICE has typically housed 150 to 200 detainees in the Kenosha County jail.

“The sheriff wanted to protect the current jail population that we had, along with the employees we have here and the staff at the facility, from the spread of the virus,” Wright said.

Immigrant advocates have called on ICE to immediately release all detainees with medical conditions who could be put at risk by the coronavirus.

On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union asked a federal court to force officials to release a group of immigrants who have a lung disease, heart disease, diabetes, epilepsy, or kidney disease to protect them from the potential spread of COVID-19 from a Seattle-area detention facility.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.