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Immigrant advocates ask DHS watchdog to protect ICE detainees from COVID-19

Immigrant advocacy groups filed an oversight complaint Thursday with watchdogs at Homeland Security, arguing there is a "systemic failure" by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to protect thousands of detained migrants from the novel coronavirus that has killed nearly 68,000 people in the U.S. 

The American Immigration Council and the American Immigration Lawyers Association, through their joint initiative known as the Immigration Justice Campaign, filed a 65-page complaint with officials at the Department of Homeland Security's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and the Office of the Inspector General. 

This includes the firsthand accounts of 17 people currently in ICE custody, who have said that the agency and its private contractors have failed to provide hygiene supplies, personal protective equipment, and access to critical medical care. One detainee in Arizona said that people in the facility faced retaliation when they protested their conditions, facing rubber bullets, lockdowns and pepper spray for going on hunger strikes. 

The groups also complained that ICE continues to transfer people—including some who tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after their transfer—across the county from one ICE facility to another, "increasing the risk of further spread," the complaint said.

"Currently, half of those tested in ICE custody for COVID-19 are confirmed positive cases," noted the Immigrant Justice Campaign. In the last month, the number of cases in ICE detention has rapidly spiked to 753 cases, including 36 people at La Palma and 10 more at the Eloy Detention Center. There are around 29,675 people in ICE custody, according to agency figures, and 1,528 people have been tested for COVID-19.

At least one ICE officer at Eloy has been diagnosed with COVID-19. 

In early April, advocates in Arizona asked a federal judge to order the immediate release of eight people held by ICE in two detention facilities in Arizona, including five at the La Palma Correction Center, where a 45-year-old man was diagnosed with the disease in early April. 

Following the group's habeas corpus request, ICE released all but one of the immigrants, said Greer Millard, a spokeswoman with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, one of the advocacy organizations that requested the releases in Arizona. 

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At least 192 people have been released from custody after court orders, ICE said, however, the agency also made sure to note the "criminal convictions or charges" of 171 people who had been released, though it remained murky which crimes were charges and which were convictions, nor when those convictions had been made against the people released in April.

"There is a growing number of individuals who have been released as a result of judicial orders," the agency complained. "These are non-discretionary releases on the part of ICE, and as a result, they do not necessarily undergo the same public safety, flight risk, and/or medical analysis."

ICE officials said they were "actively litigating many of these court decisions," and argued that federal courts had ordered people released who "have extensive criminal histories and pose a potential public safety threat." 

"ICE is providing this information in this forum to ensure complete transparency," the agency said, noting the releases in only 12 cities. 

Immigration advocacy groups have said for weeks that detention centers are "tinderboxes on the verge of explosion," and on Wednesday, that fear was confirmed by the first death of an immigrant from COVID-19 after 57-year-old Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia died in ICE custody at the facility in Otay Mesa, near San Diego. 

Escobar Mejia had lived in the U.S. since 1980, and had been in custody since January. In April, he had a bond hearing, but the judge refused to release him leaving Escobar Mejia, a diabetic who had lost his right foot because of complications from the disease, in ICE custody, the Los Angeles Times reported

Two asylum seekers from Mexico complained about the conditions, saying that they face situations that made social distancing impossible, including a lack of soap, and that officials retaliated against detainees who went on hunger strikes to protest the conditions. 

One woman, identified as Melissa, said that it was impossible to social distancing because her "pod" was nearly full, and that immigrants were given masks that were made by other detainees. Melissa said that in a declaration that she came to the U.S. in November with her brother to seek asylum after cartel members threatened to seize their ranch  Melissa said that detainees were only given soap once a week, and detainees are charged for additional soap. Melissa also said that her sheets aren't washed and that her clothes come back dirty from the facility's laundry because another detainee told her that clothing is "washed in dirty water without soap." Melissa's attorney said that she requested humanitarian parole, but there is a 30-day backlog for requests. 

Iván, an asylum seeker from Mexico, is at La Palma and said he has seen other detained people visibly sick in the kitchen. According to the complaint, Iván is unable to sanitize the things he has to touch to perform his duties, and he fears retaliation. Iván also told advocates that detainees have gone on hunger strikes, and that officials at the detention center have responded to protests and hunger strikes with "pepper spray, rubber bullets, lockdowns, and solitary confinement." 

Like Melissa, Iván is waiting for humanitarian parole, the groups said in their complaint. 

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"The fight for adequate access to medical and mental health care in detention is not new—we have filed numerous complaints highlighting the deleterious impacts of detention on the wellbeing of those in ICE custody. However, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the health and safety of those in detention is more urgent than ever," said Katie Shepherd, National Advocacy Counsel for the Immigration Justice Campaign. "Medical experts have described ICE detention as a ‘tinderbox scenario,’ and from the accounts in this complaint highlighting limited personal space and lack of masks, hand sanitizer, and soap, the reality of this description is all too clear."

"The continued spread of this deadly virus in ICE facilities will lead to devastating consequences, and will further strain our healthcare system unnecessarily, as those infected while detained will be sent to hospitals already struggling with inadequate bed space," she said. 

"The harrowing accounts in this complaint are just a sampling of the stories reverberating throughout the nation. ICE must act swiftly to ameliorate the risk for those in its custody This should begin with a substantial reduction of the detained population," said Karen Lucas, the Immigration Justice Campaign's director. "Under the law, ICE has the discretion to release far more people from these dangerous detained conditions - and to choose humane and effective alternatives to detention instead. These choices are a matter of life and death. We urge ICE to respond to this grave situation immediately." 

"Almost six out of every 10 people in ICE custody have never been convicted of even a minor petty offense," noted researchers with the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a non-partisan project based at Syracuse University, according to ICE data from March. And, among the people held at Eloy and La Palma, nearly 1,100 were waiting for court hearings in March. 

At La Palma, only 7 percent of detainees had been convicted of a serious felony, while nearly 92 percent were held without a conviction. At Eloy, about 8 percent had a serious conviction, while nearly 88 percent were held despite having no convictions on record, according to TRAC. 

The group noted that researchers estimated that in the next 90 days, up to 72 percent of the people in ICE detention could be infected with COVID-19, a situation that would likely overwhelm the agency's ability to manage care for people in their custody,  and would send COVID-19 cases to the rural hospitals that surround many immigration detention facilities. 

"Failure to take immediate steps to significantly reduce the population of individuals in ICE detention facilities will lead to avoidable suffering and loss of life and will only exacerbate a global health crisis," the group wrote. 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A protestor during a demonstration outside of the La Palma detention facility in Eloy, Ariz., on April 10.


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