Calling ICE detention centers "ticking time bombs" at risk for a COVID-19 outbreak, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., on Monday proposed a bill that would release some detainees and stop immigration enforcement against people who are not a "significant public safety risk"

According to Booker, each of New Jersey’s four facilities that house ICE detainees have reported cases of COVID-19 among its staff and inmates. Sixteen of the 72 immigrants who have tested positive nationally in detention centers are in New Jersey.

Booker along with co-sponsor U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said the close quarters of detention centers and a high number of detainees with underlying health issues increases the risk for an outbreak.

"This is really a matter of life and death: it’s time that we act quickly and decisively to save as many lives as possible, and that means ending the unnecessary detention of immigrants during this public health crisis," Booker said in a written statement.

The proposal would first release those over 50 or under 21 years of age, and anyone with health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus.

Released individuals would not be required to return to detention once the pandemic is over unless it is determined to present a public safety threat.

About 37,000 people are being held in detention centers including 1,200 at the New Jersey facilities, according to Booker.

Booker's bill also includes a modification of in-person reporting for detainees, suspension of collateral arrests and making telephone calls and video-conferencing available for detained immigrants free of charge because in-person visits have been temporarily suspended. It would also provide basic hygiene products such as soap and hand sanitizer. Booker said many detention centers across the country don't provide these items.

The bill moves forward similar idea from U.S. Sen. Robert Menendz, D-N.J., who in a letter dated March 30 to acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf  asked that ICE "release non-violent detainees, who pose no public safety threat and those at high risk of getting severely sick" from the novel coronavirus.

Contact reporter Dan Alexander at or via Twitter @DanAlexanderNJ

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