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El Paso Leaders Call For Release Of Nonviolent Detainees

Detainee in an ICE facility
Associated Press
A detainee walks in a hallway during a media tour at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019.

El Paso leaders are calling for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release nonviolent detainees in the region, to protect them from COVID-19.

“In a sober way, now we see how each of our destinies are really intertwined and how every one of us really is our brother’s keeper,” said Mark Seitz, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of El Paso, at a virtual press conference Tuesday.

“Faith and reason tell us that the right thing to do now is to protect each other by taking steps toward social distancing,” he said. “The federal government has already recognized that this is very nearly impossible in facilities like prisons and detention facilities.”

Health experts have called immigration detention facilities ticking time bombs for coronavirus outbreaks; they are unventilated, sometimes overcrowded spaces where employees can potentially bring in the virus as they come and go.

Releasing detainees “will protect the health of migrants, our immigration enforcement personnel and our entire El Paso community,” Seitz said.

Several government officials — including state Senator José Rodríguez and El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego — and immigrant advocacy groups joined the call. Many noted that the majority of ICE detainees have not been convicted of a crime.

In fact, as of July 2019, more than two-thirds of people detained in the El Paso region had no U.S. criminal conviction, according to data from the Transactional Resource Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Most detainees with a conviction had only been convicted of immigration violations.

El Paso County Commissioner David Stout noted that ICE detainees can be released on humanitarian parole. “Wise use” of this parole would not only protect their health, he said, but prevent potential strain on the local healthcare system.

“The county has a responsibility as the healthcare provider of record for people who have nowhere else to go,” Stout said. “Individuals detained by ICE in the region would likely find themselves receiving care at [University Medical Center] in the event of an outbreak hitting the detention center.”

Stout said many detainees have family members waiting for them in other parts of the country, “so releasing these detainees would preserve regional hospital capacity for the people here, who do not have somewhere else to live.”

As of Wednesday morning, 19 ICE detainees had tested positive for COVID-19, according to the agency.

BuzzFeed News reported Tuesday that ICE has identified 600 detainees for potential release because they were deemed “vulnerable” to the coronavirus. The agency has already released more than 160 people.

“Due to the unprecedented nature of COVID-19, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is reviewing cases of individuals in detention who may be vulnerable to the virus,” the agency said in a statement to KERA. “Utilizing CDC guidance along with the advice of medical professionals, ICE may place individuals in a number of alternatives to detention options.” Decisions to release detainees will be made on a case-by-case basis.

ICE has also said it is taking precautions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, like placing detainees who may have been exposed to the virus in a “medical cohort,” isolated from other people.

“ICE places detainees with fever and/or respiratory symptoms in a single medical housing room, or in a medical airborne infection isolation room specifically designed to contain biological agents, such as COVID-19,” the agency said on its website.

Yet many detainees say they are terrified of contracting the virus, and that ICE is not taking the necessary steps to protect them.

On the press call, the El Paso advocacy group Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee shared testimony from two migrants detained in the region.

“I have never seen a guard, a doctor with gloves or a mask,” said one man, who is currently being held at the Otero County Processing Center, about 30 miles outside El Paso. “I have seen two or three guards who sneeze, cough with cold-like symptoms, and it’s very worrisome because they pass us food. We have contact with them. These aren’t adequate measures.” DMSC did not share the man’s name, out of concern he may face retaliation for speaking out.

“At Otero, detained persons there have reported a lack of access to soap other than at the commissary, relying instead on shampoo to wash their hands,” said Linda Corchado, director of legal services at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. “Meanwhile, detained persons at El Paso [Processing Center] report that shared resources such as telephones are not sanitized after use and that social distancing is ill-enforced.”

Ranit Mishori, senior medical advisor for Physician for Human Rights, said people simply cannot protect themselves in detention centers.

“The only defenses that we have against coronavirus — social distancing, meticulous hygiene practices, self-quarantine - are not possible in immigration detention centers.”

Releasing detainees during a global pandemic “will save the lives of immigrants, of facility staff, of vendors, their families and the broader public in the surrounding communities,” Mishori said.

“There is still time to do the right thing, but the window is closing rapidly.”

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.