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Hundreds join 'COVID safe' protest caravan outside Eloy immigration detention center

Demonstrators demand release of migrants as coronavirus cases increase among those held

Honking their horns, pounding on the roofs of cars, cheering, and banging pots and drums, protestors joined a Friday caravan of more than 100 cars along the two-lane road that passed by the La Palma Correctional Center, an Eloy detention facility managed by a private-prison company for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

The protest was a "COVID safe action" demanding the immediate release of immigrants held at La Palma, as civil rights advocates have pushed ICE to release dozens of people as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases among detainees in Arizona continue to rise. 

Tucson and Phoenix-based organizations, including the Alliance for Global Justice, No More Deaths, Never Again Action, Puente, and Trans Queer Pueblo, led the event, which began around 4:30 p.m. on Friday, and lasted for nearly two hours as the cars drove up and down a half-mile block, creating a motorized carousel of vehicles marked by a cacophony of sounds. 

Guards with CoreCivic, the private-prison firm that runs the ICE facility under a contract, stood outside at the ends of the street along with Eloy police. 

While the protest remained peaceful, albeit noisy, a CoreCivic guard brandished a shotgun, holding it by the barrel as three women walked along the sidewalk carrying a large drum. After a few moments, he retreated and placed the weapon in a white SUV. 

"Let them hear us inside," one woman yelled, as the cars and trucks continued to drive back-and-forth along the street. From their cars, people cheered, banged on their roofs, and held signs reading "Detention is deadly," and "Liberen a todxs," or "Free them all."   

On Monday, ICE confirmed the second case of COVID-19 at La Palma after the first one was reported a few days earlier. While the number of cases at La Palma has held steady, there are now three new cases at the nearby Florence Detention Center. 

Nationwide, the first coronavirus case was reported by ICE on March 30 at a facility New Jersey, and since then there are now 61 cases of the novel coronavirus at ICE detention centers, including the five in Arizona. And, ICE has said that at least 19 agency employees have been diagnosed with the disease. 

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An ICE spokesman said on Tuesday that the agency was "reviewing cases" on individuals who "may be vulnerable to the virus" on a case-by-case basis. This week, ICE released about 160 immigrants because they are considered vulnerable to the disease, and officials said that they were evaluating the cases of at least 600 people, including older immigrants and pregnant women. 

"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," she said. "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 individuals in ICE custody occur every day on a case-by-case basis." 

However, the dozens of protestors outside of La Palma on Friday afternoon demanded that ICE release all immigrants in detention, arguing that the close quarters of a detention center, along with the lack of soap, disinfectant, gloves, masks could turn them into "death camps" when a coronavirus outbreak comes. 

"ICE has the legal authority to release the majority of these detainees right now," said Rachel Wilson, an immigration attorney in Tucson. "Immigration detention, by law, is not supposed to be punitive. I would say that death is definitely punitive." 

"It's not an exaggeration to say that these detention centers are death camps," Wilson argued, noting that Anne Frank — a German-born Jewish girl who was memorialized by the discovery of her diary years after her death during the Holocaust — died during a typhus outbreak at the Nazi's Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. 

"We can't turn away from this, it is an absolute catastrophe," said Wilson. 

Complaint pushes ICE to release 'vulnerable' immigrants

Last week, advocates filed a complaint in federal court, asking the agency to release eight people who have health conditions that could make them more vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. In their filling, the Phoenix-based Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project, the American Civil Liberties Union and its Arizona chapter, and the law firm Perkins Coie LLP called ICE's detention facilities "tinderboxes on the verge of explosion."

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." 

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"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," advocates told a federal judge. 

And, one man with COVID-19 was deported to Guatemala.  Health officials there 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. 

Yasmeen Pitts-O'Keefe, a spokeswoman for the agency, said that after the La Palma detainee was diagnosed with COVID-19, the agency was following CDC guidelines and monitoring detainees for symptoms. 

Around 36,000 people are held in immigration detention nationwide, down from a high of nearly 52,000 last year. And, that number has decreased in recent weeks, as ICE has limited the intake of new detainees, and Border Patrol has begun quickly expelling people without formal deportation procedures directly into Mexico. 

ICE said that its detained population had dropped 60 percent in recent weeks, down to 33,863 by April 4, according to figures from the agency. 

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. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a non-partisan project at Syracuse University, about 61 percent of ICE detainees have no conviction, not even for a petty offense, and the number of "serious" criminals has hit a five-year low. 

At La Palma, about 92 percent of people do not have a conviction, TRAC said. 

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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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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Hundreds of people packed into more than 100 cars stage a 'COVID-19 safe' protest outside of the La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona. The facility, managed under private contact for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

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