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ICE is asking for 45,000 N95 masks, the crucial surgical masks in short supply at hospitals around the country during the coronavirus outbreak.
Last week, the agency said it was slowing immigration enforcement in light of the global pandemic and wouldn’t carry out actions at or near medical facilities, “except in the most extraordinary of circumstances.” But even to conduct its reduced operations, the agency says it needs masks and put out a request on Friday asking companies to bid to supply the agency with them.
“These items are part of standard employee protective equipment (PPE) for all law enforcement officers,” an ICE spokesperson told VICE News.
The request specifies the masks will go to all 26 of ICE’s Enforcement and Removals Operations field offices within the next 30 days. From those field offices, ICE dispatches officers to identify and arrest undocumented immigrants, as part of the criminal detentions the agency will contintue to conduct during the outbreak.
“ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) will focus enforcement on public safety risks and individuals subject to mandatory detention based on criminal grounds,” the agency said in a statement on March 18. “For those individuals who do not fall into those categories, ERO will exercise discretion to delay enforcement actions until after the crisis or utilize alternatives to detention, as appropriate.”
Doctors and nurses working in hospitals and emergency rooms around the country have told VICE News that they can’t get the masks they need to treat patients and, without them, they’re concerned they could contract the virus themselves. If healthcare workers are exposed without a mask to a patient who tests positive for the virus, they may have to be quarantined, which keeps them from treating patients.
“We are disease vectors,” said Michelle Gutierrez Vo, a 46-year-old nurse in Fremont, California. On Friday, she was home sick but was back at work Monday morning. “The refusal to give nurses and healthcare workers, the appropriate PPE [personal protective equipment] is just unconscionable.”
The same is true in New York City, where Mayor Bill De Blasio warned on Sunday that the state is just 10 days from running out of necessary medical supplies to treat COVID-19 patients, including masks. The federal government is scrambling to send masks to the states hardest hit by the virus, including California, New York, and Washington State.
As the coronavirus outbreak was spreading throughout the U.S. last week, ICE continued its arrests. Agents, with N95 masks in their vehicles, took a man who was on his way to a grocery store into custody on Tuesday, during California’s shelter-in-place order. The next day, the agency announced it would slow enforcement operations.
The coronavirus outbreak has also already crept into immigration facilities. Two inmates tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday at a county correctional facility in New Jersey that houses people held on civil immigration violations.
After ICE placed the request for masks, the agency also published a new directive on its website Saturday that ordered all visitors to immigration detention centers to wear personal protective equipment. Now, lawyers representing immigrants say they need to choose between seeing their clients and using masks sorely needed at hospitals.
That prompted the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the National Association of Immigration Judges, and the ICE Professionals Union to issue a joint statement that called for the closure of all in-person hearings at immigration courts during the pandemic.
“There is a severe shortage of PPE across the nation,” Jeremy McKinney, a vice president with the lawyers association said in a statement. “This requirement will make it impossible for lawyers to represent their clients unless they rob health care providers who are working to save the lives of thousands of patients of desperately needed equipment. All live in-person hearings need to be immediately suspended.”
ICE referred VICE News to the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review for comment on the call to shut down in-person hearings at immigration courts. The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Cover: In a May 6, 2009 file photo a store attendant holds an N-95 mask over a box of disposable surgical masks in Manila, Philippines. (AP Photo/ Pat Roque/file)