President Joe Biden has already ordered significant changes to US immigration policy. But he has not issued an order that Republican Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan claims he did.
Jordan said on Facebook and Twitter on Saturday that Biden issued a new order to release “all” undocumented immigrants. Similarly, Jordan said in a Monday interview with Fox News host Maria Bartiromo that Biden “has decided he’s going to release 14,000 illegals.” Fourteen thousand is the approximate number of people in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention around the country.
Jordan’s source for these assertions was a viral article on conservative website Breitbart News — which has been shared tens of thousands of times on Facebook alone — about an email sent on Thursday morning by an ICE official in Houston.
The email included the words “release them all, immediately.” But Breitbart and then Jordan took the words way out of context.
Facts First: Neither Biden nor his administration has ordered the release of everybody in ICE detention; ICE confirmed to CNN that the viral claim is inaccurate. The Department of Justice said in a Monday court filing that certain immigrants recently released by ICE in Texas were people particularly vulnerable to harm from Covid-19, who have special pandemic-era protections under a court order from last year. The “release them all, immediately” directive in Houston — which was rescinded in another internal email the next day — was about these high-risk detainees in particular, an ICE official said in yet another internal email.
We don’t have the full story about what happened with these Texas releases or with the email exchange. But it’s already clear that there is no basis for the claim that Biden has mandated a mass release of every single person in ICE facilities across the US.
ICE said in a statement that it “continues to make custody determinations on a case by case basis.” An ICE official who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity confirmed explicitly that there is no Biden order to release everyone.
A spokesman for Jordan did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
It’s worth noting that Fox News host Tucker Carlson contradicted Jordan’s claim three days before Jordan made his false claim on Bartiromo’s show. Carlson, who obtained the Houston email before it was released in court, told his audience that the Biden administration’s own policy memo had not itself called for the instant release of everyone in ICE detention.
The email chain
Here’s a more detailed explanation of the ICE email exchange.
The Thursday email that sparked the controversy was written by an “assistant officer in charge” of enforcement and removal operations in ICE’s Houston field office, whose name was redacted in the Justice Department court filing. The email said that they needed to stop removing immigrants from the country by midnight — Biden’s administration had ordered a 100-day deportation freeze to take effect no later than Friday — and then continued: “Check the HRD at 1300hrs for new review decisions. Release them all, immediately.”
Contrary to the Breitbart article, that did not mean that all undocumented immigrants around the country, or even at any Houston facility, were to be released immediately. Rather, according to another internal email released by the Justice Department in court, “HRD means High risk detainees” — specifically, detainees at high risk for Covid-19.
This Friday email, written by an ICE assistant director whose name was also redacted, explained that the high-risk detainees “are Fraihat cases.” Faour Abdallah Fraihat is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit that led a judge to order ICE last year to identify, monitor, and consider the release of detainees at elevated risk of severe harm from the coronavirus.
The Friday email said that ICE had been keeping some high-risk people in detention because “their removal was imminent.” After Biden’s freeze prevented these imminent deportations, however, ICE had to decide whether to keep the people in detention or let them go within the US. (Releasing people from detention does not mean they will never be deported.)
The Biden administration has not publicly explained how it wants his deportation freeze to interact with the provisions of the pandemic-related court order. An internal ICE email sent Friday afternoon told the sender of the Thursday “release them all, immediately” email to “retract this directive immediately.” This retraction email, signed “FOD” (likely field office director), said supervisors should follow the Biden administration’s freeze memo “as closely to the letter as possible” — the memo did not say anything about immediately releasing immigrants at high risk from Covid-19 — and that “operational guidance is being developed and will be issued in the coming days.”
Four days later, this Tuesday, a federal judge put the deportation freeze on temporary hold.