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'A Public Health Nightmare Waiting To Happen': Doctors Call For ICE To Release Detainees

The Otero County Processing Center
Mallory Falk
The Otero County Processing Center

As the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. continues to climb, medical experts are turning their attention to immigration detention centers. 

Many say these facilities are tinderboxes for a coronavirus outbreak and are urging authorities to release detainees before the virus spreads within the centers and then back outside.

“This is just a public health nightmare waiting to happen,” said Dr. Allen Keller, an associate professor at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine and founder of the Bellevue Program for Survivors of Torture.

“These facilities are by their very nature enclosed. They’re often overcrowded, with limited and sometimes inadequate healthcare,” he said. “Social distancing is virtually impossible in the context of immigration detention.”

Diana, a 39-year-old asylum seeker from Cuba, said she’s desperately afraid she might die in detention. She has breast cancer, which puts her at a higher risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19. Yet she can’t take even the most basic precautions to protect herself like keeping her distance from others. She said she shares a room with about 45 other women. (Diana asked that we not use her last name, because her asylum case is still pending. She was detained after crossing the border legally at a port of entry late last year.)

“There’s no bleach, no hand sanitizer, no masks,” she said in Spanish, on a phone call from a detention center in southern Louisiana. “When I went to take my [cancer] medicine, I asked for gloves and was told no.”

More than 3,000 physicians recently sent a letter to ICE asking the agency to release detainees while their legal cases move forward “to avoid preventable deaths and mitigate the harm from a COVID-19 outbreak.” In particular, they urged the agency to release vulnerable detainees, including adults over 60 and people with serious chronic medical conditions.

Dr. Ranit Mishori, a professor at Georgetown University School of Medicine and a senior medical advisor for Physicians for Human Rights, was one of the physicians to sign the letter. She said ICE doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to healthcare.

“We have a very recent history of disease outbreaks already occurring like mumps and chickenpox,” she said. “We have a very recent history of reporting overcrowding, of medical negligence, of very subpar medical care.”

Mishori noted that immigration detention is civil and ICE has the authority to grant bond or parole. In fact, nearly half of detainees haven’t been accused of any crime except civil immigration violations.

“These people are not being incarcerated specifically because they are a danger to our society,” said Allegra Love, an immigration attorney, advocate and director of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project.

“When we’re balancing out should we be holding these folks against the advice of public health experts, it’s really important to consider that," she said. 

Love said the confusion and anxiety most people are feeling right now are only amplified for people in detention.

“You’re in a cage and you can’t do the things everyone else can do to protect yourself and your body,” she said.

ICE says it’s taking steps to mitigate the chance of an outbreak, such as screening detainees when they arrive at facilities and separating those with symptoms of COVID-19 from others.

“ICE transports individuals with moderate to severe symptoms, or those who require higher levels of care or monitoring, to appropriate hospitals with expertise in high-risk care,” the agency says on its website. “Detainees who do not have fever or symptoms, but meet CDC criteria for epidemiologic risk, are housed separately in a single cell, or as a group, depending on available space.”

Still, just this week, a 31-year-old man in New Jersey became the first detainee to test positive for the virus. Last week, a guard at the jail where he’s being held tested positive. An employee at a facility in Texas also contracted the virus.

Allen Keller said the potential for employees to bring the virus into detention centers is high. He also said the virus may spread as detainees are transferred from one facility to another, a practice ICE appears to be continuing during the pandemic.

“One would be hard-pressed to think of a more efficient system to develop for spreading this very contagious virus,” he said.

Diana, the Cuban asylum seeker, was transferred to Louisiana from an El Paso detention center in early March, more than a month after the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the U.S.

“She was recklessly transferred during this pandemic,” said Linda Corchado, Diana’s attorney and director of legal services at the El Paso non-profit Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. “Someone who’s [immuno]compromised and is now likely facing exposure everywhere she goes.”

Corchado came to represent Diana through the El Paso Immigration Collaborative, a project with 10 partner organizations working to get asylum seekers released from immigration detention in the region.

Diana said there’s a sense of panic at the detention facility, but officials there will not provide detainees with information. She said some people have been quarantined and she heard one woman was taken to a hospital and tested positive for COVID-19.

Bryan Cox, an ICE spokesman, confirmed some detainees at the South Louisiana facility have been placed in a “medical cohort” — that is, isolated from the general population “in accordance with the CDC criteria for potential exposure.” However, he said no ICE detainees in Louisiana have tested positive for COVID-19.

But Diana said she hasn’t seen ICE take steps to protect people like her.

“There’s no hygiene, no precaution of any kind,” she said. “Because to ICE, we’re not worth anything.”

Corchado is asking ICE to release Diana on humanitarian parole — one of many requests she’s filed since the coronavirus outbreak, including several for HIV positive clients.

Diana said she has a childhood friend waiting to take her into his home in Florida where she thinks she has a better chance to survive the pandemic.

Mallory Falk covers El Paso and the border for KERA as part of The Texas Newsroom, a regional news hub linking stations across the state. She is part of the national Report for America program, which places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.