Fear of Coronavirus in Immigrant Detention Leads to Preparation, Calls for Release
Migrants in often-crowded facilities are quarantined, though no cases are yet confirmed
Detainees at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Tacoma, Wash., where one woman said she knew of at least two men who had been quarantined.
PHOTO: TED S. WARREN/ASSOCIATED PRESS
March 21, 2020 1:00 pm ET
Government officials are preparing for a possible coronavirus outbreak in the immigration processing system as advocates call for the release of the approximately 38,000 migrants held in often-crowded detention facilities.
A letter from Vice President Mike Pence to President Trump dated Tuesday requests $566 million for the Department of Homeland Security, with hundreds of millions of dollars to be earmarked for quarantine facilities along the Mexican border.
The budget request to Mr. Trump also calls for about $249 million for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to convert at least four immigration detention facilities into quarantine facilities.
Meanwhile, detainees and staff at ICE facilities are increasingly being quarantined, raising anxiety.
A detainee at ICE’s Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., said she knew of at least two men who had been quarantined there.
“It’s very bad, because they hide many things from us, they hide many things,” the woman, who said she believed coronavirus may be spreading in the facility, said in a phone interview. “But we know, we know what is going on.”
ICE said Friday there are no detainees who had tested positive for the virus and that agents were grouping immigrants in cohorts at multiple facilities to stop potential spread.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement takes very seriously the health, safety and welfare of those in our care,” spokeswoman Danielle Bennett said in a statement. “ICE is committed to ensuring that everyone in our custody receives timely access to medical services and treatment.”
Earlier this week, 10 detainees were placed in cohorts at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility in Colorado after possible exposure, ICE said in a statement.
On Friday ICE said a member of the medical administrative staff at the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey had tested positive for coronavirus and was under self-quarantine.
Ms. Bennett declined to say how many detainees had been tested for coronavirus. The agency last week suspended social visitation at all detention facilities as a precautionary measure.
On Thursday, a group of more than 700 advocates, civil-rights groups and religious organizations sent a letter to ICE’s acting director calling the agency to release all of its detainees.
“ICE has repeatedly proven to be incapable of adequately responding and providing the proper care for people in its custody, under normal circumstances,” read the letter, which noted that outbreaks of mumps, scabies and other diseases had spread quickly in the past.
Releasing all immigrants in detention would be an unprecedented move and would run counter to the Trump administration’s hard line on enforcement.
Unlike state and federal prisons and jails, ICE detainees aren’t facing criminal charges. It isn’t a crime to be in the U.S. without authorization and ICE jails hold people for civil immigration violations.
Congressional Democrats including California Sen. Kamala Harris and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren have asked the Trump administration to inform them of specific plans for protecting immigrants in their custody from the coronavirus.
Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary for Homeland Security, said on Twitter on Thursday that ICE will continue to arrest and deport all eligible immigrants. That appeared to contradict a statement issued Wednesday by ICE saying it would limit enforcement to those deemed public-safety risks or convicted of serious crimes.
Florida immigration attorney Heriberto Hernandez said he tried to visit a client at Glades County Detention Center on March 2 only to learn the man was quarantined and couldn’t receive visitors.
That client later said by phone two people had been taken to a local hospital for coronavirus testing, Mr. Hernandez said.
Government attorneys who work with immigrants in detention during their court appearances are also concerned.
“All of the attorneys…in our agency, they are scared to death,” said Fanny Behar-Ostrow, the head of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 511, which represents ICE attorneys.
—Alicia A. Caldwell contributed to this article.
Write to Alejandro Lazo at firstname.lastname@example.org
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