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2nd COVID-19 case confirmed at Arizona ICE detention facility
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2nd COVID-19 case confirmed at Arizona ICE detention facility

  • Asylum seekers, most from Central America and Mexico, wait in line at the Kino Border Initiative's 'comedor' or soup kitchen in Nogales, Sonora in January.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comAsylum seekers, most from Central America and Mexico, wait in line at the Kino Border Initiative's 'comedor' or soup kitchen in Nogales, Sonora in January.

A second person had been diagnosed with coronavirus at the La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy, north of Tucson, authorities said Monday.

The announcement came just days after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials confirmed the first case of COVID-19 among immigration detainees in Arizona.

A 24-year-old Guatemalan man was diagnosed with COVID-19, the second person in immigration detention in the state to contract the novel coronavirus that has swept through the nation. For weeks immigrant rights groups have worried that cases of COVID-19  would be the spark among immigrants in civil detention facilities that could create a "tinderbox." 

On Wednesday, ICE announced that a 45-year-old man from Guatemala was diagnosed with COVID-19, the first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus in Arizona's immigration detention centers. 

In a statement, Yasmeen Pitts-O'Keefe, a spokeswoman for ICE, confirmed the second case. "Consistent with CDC guidelines, those who have come in contact with the individual have been cohorted and are being monitored for symptoms," she said.

Immigrant-rights groups push for releases during outbreak

As COVID-19 cases spread across the United States, civil rights and immigrant advocacy groups have pressed ICE to release on parole immigrants considered especially vulnerable to the disease, including those older than 60, or who have chronic or underlying conditions, including a weakened immune system, or heart or lung disease. 

Last week, a coalition of immigration advocacy groups asked a federal judge Wednesday to order the immediate release of eight people held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in two centers in Arizona, arguing that immigration detention facilities "tinderboxes on the verge of explosion" because of the spread of COVID-19. 

This includes five people held at the La Palma. Three others are held at the Eloy Detention Center, a nearby facility that like La Palma is run by CoreCivic, a private prison corporation under contract with ICE. 

The complaint was brought by the Phoenix-based Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project, the American Civil Liberties Union and its Arizona chapter, and the law firm Perkins Coie LLP. 

This includes five people held at the La Palma Correction Center, where a 45-year-old man from Guatemala was diagnosed with COVID-19, officials said Wednesday — the first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus in Arizona in ICE detention centers. Three others are held at the Eloy Detention Center, a nearby facility that like La Palma is run by CoreCivic, a private prison corporation under contract with ICE. 

The vulnerable immigrants are adults, ranging from 19 to 54 years-old, and share what the groups called "acute, imminent risk for complications or even death if they contract COVID-19 due to medical conditions like asthma, heart disease, HIV, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder." 

One woman, identified as Geidys, is a 21-year-old woman who sought asylum in the United States because her father "threatened to disappear her" because of her sexual orientation and political dissidence, said the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project in a statement.

"The immigration court previously ruled that Geidys could not be returned to Cuba because she faced the risk of torture, but the government has kept her in detention while trying to find a third country to accept her," the group said. Geidys suffers from asthma and tachycardia with a syncope episode, they said, and "ongoing detention puts her at severe risk of COVID-19-related illness or death. Continuing to detain Geidys, in the midst of a pandemic, after she has already won her case is unconscionable." 

"Every day that people with serious medical conditions sit in immigration detention is a day that their lives are being unnecessarily put in danger,” said Laura Belous, an attorney with the Florence Project on Wednesday. "Just today, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in a detention center in Arizona was announced. Time is of the essence for each of these people and for everyone in immigration detention."

In the 37-page complaint, advocates said that the conditions of confinement at La Palma and other facilities make it impossible to "adequately mange the serious risk of harm for medical vulnerable individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic" including social distancing that federal and state officials have pushed for as the contagion spreads. 

"Petitioners live in dorms and sleep in bunk beds, sharing common spaces and medical facilities with hundreds of other detainees. They are forced to share necessities like showers, telephones, toilets, and sinks with dozens of others," advocates wrote. 

"They are in the constant presence of officers and staff who continually rotate in and out of the facility, each time risking transmission of the virus to those inside and outside the detention center." 

"Deprived of basic forms of preventative hygiene and placed in conditions that make it impossible to practice social distancing," vulnerable detainees "are helpless to take the only risk mitigation steps known to limit transmission of the virus." 

And if they are infected, the groups wrote they "face a heightened risk of complications, pneumonia, sepsis, and even death within detention centers that have a track record of failing to provide adequate medical care even outside times of crisis." 

The groups quoted Dr. Jaimie Meyer, an infectious disease specialist, who said that "jails, prisons, and detention centers are settings that pose a 'significantly higher' risk for the spread of infectious diseases like COVID-19 than the general community. 

Even when social visitation is suspended, staff, contractors, vendors, and detainees arrive at and leave the facility daily, and detention centers are "under-sourced and ill-equipped to provide sufficient personal protective equipment for people who are incarcerated and caregiving staff."

"It is impossible to seal entry and exit to the facilities, and thus detainees housed within cannot be isolated from viruses circulating in the broader community," the complaint read. 

In a clear sign of the future, an outbreak of mumps in March 2019 meant that ICE quarantined about 345 people at La Palma, while another 59 were quarantined for chickenpox at the Florence facility. 

And, a 2016 outbreak of measles at the Eloy facility began because a family from nearby Kearney contracted the disease at Disneyland, and brought it back to central Arizona, resulting in the infection at least 22 detainees. 

"Preventative strategies utilized by the general public, like social distancing, hand sanitizing, and proper ventilation are neither readily available nor particularly effective in detention facilities. As a result, once one case of COVID-19 is identified in the facilities, rapid transmission and widespread outbreak is virtually inevitable."

Last week, ICE said that there were six confirmed cases of COVID-19 in ICE detention, including the case in Eloy, and five other cases in New Jersey, spread out among two ICE facilities and a county jail. However, on Monday the number of cases has risen to 13

According to Department of Homeland Security document, dated March 19, ICE officials had isolated nine detainees, and were monitoring 24 immigrants in 10 different ICE facilities, the Nation reported. It's not clear what happened with these other cases.

However, Guatemalan health officials have said that a 29-year-old man tested positive for the disease after he was deported from the U.S. The unidentified man was detained at the Florence Detention Center in Arizona, and was on a flight with 41 other people, the Dallas Morning News reported. 

ICE said that the agency is "paying close attention to this pandemic" and "consistent with federal partners, ICE is taking important steps to further safeguard those in our care." 

In recent weeks, this has meant the suspension of social visitation visits, and lawyers have said that ICE will turn them away if they don't arrive with their own nitrile gloves, surgical mask or N95 respirators, and eye protection. 

ICE said that its own epidemiologists have been "tracking the outbreak, regularly updating infection prevention and control protocols," and they were sending that information to ICE's Health Service Corps staff. 

Around 36,000 people are held in immigration detention nationwide, down from a high of nearly 52,000 last year. 

While about 14,000 are held because they are, according "convicted criminals," around 5,000 people are waiting for pending charges, and nearly 16,500 are in ICE detention because of immigration violations. 

As of March 28, around 6,000 people are asylum seekers, who have passed the first hurdle toward getting asylum in the United States, after they convinced officials at ICE's sister agency, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, that they have a credible fear that should they be returned to their home countries they will face persecution or torture. 

Around 1,800 people are held at the La Palma facility alone, though the agency has contracted CoreCivic to hold up to 3,200 adults. 

"Since the rise of COVID-19, ICE has modified its ordinary immigration enforcement procedures by curtailing its raids and interior enforcement in order to stop the spread of COVID-19," the complaint read. "There is no legitimate reason to continue to detain Petitioners under these circumstances—circumstances that, in ICE’s view, outweigh the usual imperatives of immigration enforcement. And no risk to the community justifies the detention of these particular individuals under these conditions, particularly where Petitioners have no criminal histories."

When ICE detained them, the agency "created a special relationship that required them to provide petitioners with medical care and reasonable  safety," and the agency has placed the eight immigrants at "continued risk of suffering serious harm during a deadly pandemic with local community spread."

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