Criminal justice organization Grassroots Leadership, along with civil rights group Mijente and over 150 immigration, civil rights and faith-based advocacy groups, on March 24 sent a joint letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr asking for immediate immigration policy changes in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. According to an emailed statement from Mijente, the groups asked the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to halt the arrests, referrals and criminal prosecution of migrants, to close “Operation Streamline” courts, and to drop existing charges in all districts. 

The letter states:

We call on the Department of Justice to immediately enact the following changes in all districts:

1. Work with CBP, ICE, and U.S. Marshals to end arrests and criminal referrals for unauthorized entry (8 USC 1325) and unauthorized reentry (8 USC 1326);

2. Decline all new criminal prosecutions for unauthorized entry (8 USC 1325) and unauthorized reentry (8 USC 1326);

3. Immediately halt Operation Streamline magistrate courts at the southern border;

4. Drop all charges for unauthorized entry (8 USC 1325) and unauthorized reentry (8 USC 1326) and prioritize release of those currently being held on such charges; and

5. Agree to re-sentence people held in BOP or private prisons on entry or reentry offenses.

Claudia Muñoz, acting co-Executive Director of Grassroots Leadership, said in a statement that it would be a grave mistake for the DOJ to avoid taking necessary precautions right away. “Criminal charging and locking up migrants is always dangerous. In a time of a pandemic, it is not only dangerous, it also may be deadly,” she said. “Reducing the number of people who are unnecessarily locked up is a pressing public health issue, and these recommendations will go a long way towards that goal.”

Jacinta Gonzalez of Mijente warned that agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are bizarrely handling business as usual. “As recently as last week, ICE was conducting raids in our communities, indifferent to the existing fear and chaos of this pandemic,” she said. In just one of those instances in North Carolina, at least 200 of our friends and neighbors were taken into custody, and many of them are currently being prosecuted for re-entry. The DOJ should do the right thing, act now to stop any more arrests, and decline these unnecessary prosecutions so that the many thousands of people around the country, including hundreds of our people in North Carolina, can return safely home to their families,” she said in a statement.

The group’s urgent request to Barr concludes, “…these prosecutions are completely unnecessary to begin with and devastate communities. Prosecutions destroy families, and subject people to double punishment while already facing a punitive deportation and immigration detention system.”

The DOJ so far has not responded to the letter.