How federal agencies put immigrants and immigration workers at risk amid coronavirus outbreak
After fleeing Cuba and crossing into the United States last year, Arlet Victoria Remón Pérez has spent more than nine months in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Jena, Louisiana. In that time, she’s become familiar with the quality of health care the government provides inside the privately operated jail.
Remón’s mother, Arleen Aileen Pérez Vila, said her daughter spent a month asking for medical attention in the 1,200-bed LaSalle ICE Processing Center because she’d gone months without her period. Only recently was Remón taken to a hospital outside the detention center, where she was diagnosed with ovarian cysts.
Now, Pérez said, her daughter is terrified by the prospect of relying on that medical system if the new coronavirus reaches the facility where she’s being held. Remón has severe asthma, which puts her at high risk for complications from the virus. Having studied medicine in Cuba, Remón has told her mother that the facility is not equipped for an outbreak.
The danger Remón faced in Cuba as a queer-identifying woman in a family of well-known dissidents made fleeing for America seem like an obvious choice a year ago. But the risk she’s facing now in detention is something she and her family had never imagined: a deadly pandemic.
In chat groups with parents of other detainees, Pérez, who is still in Cuba, can only vent her fears and share her hope that her daughter survives. “The thought that she was coming to the land of freedom and liberty only to find that it’s in the grip of a monster has been difficult to reconcile,” she said.
In a statement on its website, ICE says it began rolling out its “pandemic workforce protection plan” in January and has medical isolation rooms for people who develop a fever or cough. At-risk detainees, the agency says, “are housed separately in a single cell, or as a group, depending on available space.”
Bryan Cox, an ICE spokesperson, said the agency can’t comment on an individual’s case without the person’s written consent. However, “any suggestion any person in ICE custody is denied necessary medical treatment is false,” Cox said. “Pursuant to ICE’s commitment to the welfare of those in the agency’s custody ICE spends more than $260 million annually on the spectrum of healthcare services provided to those in our care.”
Lawyers and advocates who work with detainees say Pérez is right to be worried for her daughter: ICE detention centers are breeding grounds for infectious diseases, and the agency’s medical facilities have been harshly criticized by inspectors and human rights organizations. Some detainees at the LaSalle facility have mounted hunger strikes to protest medical neglect and prolonged detention, among other grievances. Last year, a mumps outbreak across multiple ICE detention centers required thousands of detainees to be quarantined, including at another detention center in Louisiana.
ICE has suspended social visits to detention centers and begun screening newly arrived detainees for symptoms. But inside, detainees said, little else has changed in response to the virus.
As many corners of American life are grinding to a halt to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the U.S. immigation system – composed of multiple agencies across two federal departments – in many ways continued with business as usual.
On Monday, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services notified employees that they must continue to report to work unless they develop symptoms or come into direct contact with someone who’s tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, according to internal directives sent from agency headquarters to staffers across the nation and obtained by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.
Several USCIS employees told Reveal that they were bringing in soap from home because their office bathrooms are out. Hand sanitizer is nowhere to be found. Two officers said they’ve been rationing disinfectant wipes, also brought from home, to wipe down high-touch areas in their offices between interviews with immigrants. Employees requested anonymity over fear of retribution from an agency they say doesn’t prioritize their health and well-being.
As USCIS kept most of its offices open Monday, immigrants and their lawyers were left waiting for appointments in often crowded lobbies.
While new decisions continued to be issued by the hour, the lack of aggressive action raisedthe prospect that the virus will gain a foothold in detention centers just as public health leaders are desperately trying to contain it.
Already, ICE acknowledged that one worker at a New Jersey detention center is in self-quarantine and was tested for COVID-19. The ACLU of Southern California, The Bronx Defenders, the American Immigration Lawyers Association and a coalition of advocacy groups in the South have asked ICE to release people who are most at risk of becoming severely ill from COVID-19 – the elderly and those with chronic conditions such as Remón. A lawsuit filed Monday by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and the American Civil Liberties Union demands that ICE release at-risk detainees at a facility in Tacoma, Washington, part of the Seattle metro area, which is home to one of the largest outbreaks in the United States.
Meanwhile, some immigration attorneys are scrambling to get as many people out as possible by filing individual petitions for humanitarian parole. The nonprofit advocacy group Freedom for Immigrants is raising funds to get people released by posting their bond.
Most of the nearly 40,000 people in ICE detention are there not because the law requires it, but because the agency has dramatically curtailed parole under President Donald Trump. ICE’s acting director, Matthew Albence, told Congress last week that people in ICE detention are either “public safety threats or flight risks” and so can’t be released.
However, a federal judge recently ordered the agency to change its blanket parole denials. By law, ICE officers are supposed to make individual decisions about whether to parole someone, which includes weighing humanitarian concerns. But to do so would upend Trump’s promise to end parole for immigrants, a practice he calls “catch and release.”
“Other countries do not find it necessary to detain huge numbers of potential immigration violators,” said Vanessa Merton, who directs the Immigration Justice Clinic at the Pace University law school in New York. “By definition, if you’re in ICE detention, you’re not being held in criminal custody.”
While New York City schools were closed Monday due to the coronavirus, two federally funded learning center locations that serve unaccompanied minors remained open in Manhattan.
The Cayuga Centers collectively serve about 100 children who live with transitional foster families. The children are in the custody of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement and go to Cayuga on weekdays for school, therapy and case management. While a source said no children showed up at the centers Monday, workers still came in and school programs were not officially suspended.
In a March 15 email obtained by Reveal, Cayuga President Edward Hayes told staffers that Congress’ coronavirus aid package likely would not benefit his organization. “Unfortunately it apparently does not (cover Cayuga) as we appear to be too big to qualify for any of the relief it offers,” Hayes wrote.
Hayes declined to be interviewed for this story, but Cayuga spokesperson Richard Crompton wrote by email that Cayuga is unable to provide its services on a remote basis.
“We have introduced measures to allow staff to work more flexible hours and provide generous sick leave and personal leave,” he wrote. “No-one is being compelled to come to work if they are unable. We are working with individual staff members on a case-by-case basis to accommodate their needs.”
According to federal records, the government awarded Cayuga $79.9 million last year to care for migrant children at its two New York facilities.
Hayes wrote in his email to staffers that he wants to make science-based decisions that protect and serve staff but that he questions the wisdom of shutting down cities.
“Personally I don’t understand how public transportation can be maintained and hospitals can be kept open and groceries stores can continue to sell food and families in need can get the services they need if everyone stopped coming into their workplace,” he wrote. “This is a major reason why we will keep all programs and services OPEN unless local conditions or government mandates prevent us from doing this.” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered the closure of schools, gyms, casinos, movie theaters, bars and restaurants less than five hours later.
Lydia Holt, a spokesperson for the Office of Refugee Resettlement, said the agency doesn’t anticipate foster care program closures. “Foster care providers in our care-provider network continue to receive funding” to take care of unaccompanied minors, Holt wrote in an email Monday.
She said the agency last week “provided guidance on a call with grantees encouraging sick staff to stay home with the assurance of receiving pay.”
Yet the email from Cayuga’s Hayes to his staff seems to counter Holt. “Unfortunately we do not have the fiscal ability to increase any of this without additional funding which no one is offering us,” he wrote.
Over the weekend, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised the public to avoid gatherings larger than 50 people, and the White House on Monday lowered that number to 10.
But as of Monday, USCIS was keeping most of its offices open, forcing immigrants and their lawyers to wait for appointments in often packed lobbies that can hold dozens of people. On Monday, the South Florida chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association sent a letter to the USCIS Miami and Caribbean districts, requesting that they cancel all interviews, appointments and citizenship ceremonies.
Last week, Florida attorney Laura Kelley entered the packed waiting room of a USCIS office near Miami with her client. Visitors must check in at the front desk by placing their index fingers on a screening pad. The pad, Kelley said, wasn’t wiped clean between visitors.
“These waiting rooms at USCIS have dozens of people in them in close proximity. There’s no telling where everybody has been in the community,” she said. “This isn’t just the one appointment. We have to be in court. We go back home to our families. We’re traveling. If these things don’t get shut down, I think it’s extremely dangerous and it’s a crisis waiting to happen.”
A spokesperson for USCIS said the agency “takes the health and safety of our workforce seriously and has instructed the agency workforce to follow CDC guidelines to prevent the spread of respiratory and influenza disease. Accordingly, USCIS will continually assess protocols in place for our employees’ protection and will evaluate whether further precautions may become necessary.” It closed its San Francisco and San Jose, California, offices as of today.
At another USCIS office in South Florida, attorney Nada Sater stepped into a lobby last week. A USCIS employee jokingly asked Sater whether there was enough room in the lobby for social distancing. “And I said, ‘There’s really no room,’ ” Sater recalled.
Lawyers say USCIS has moved slowly in issuing directives related to COVID-19. Starting Monday, USCIS directed all its asylum offices to cancel walk-in inquiries and document drop-offs. The agency has advised immigrants since January that they can reschedule appointments if they’re sick. But lawyers say their clients are hesitant to reschedule or cancel appointments because many have waited months or even years for USCIS to resolve their cases.
“It’s essential for USCIS to take the reins and protect all of us by closing their offices,” Kelley said.
Last week, attorney Juliette Gomez talked to a client about her asylum interview that was scheduled the next day. The girl had a cough and sore throat but insisted on moving forward with her interview.
At the Lyndhurst, New Jersey, office on Wednesday, Gomez said the waiting area was so crowded that she and her client couldn’t find three empty seats together for them and an interpreter who was with them for the interview. Gomez soon noticed a sign taped on a wall that advised applicants with flu-like symptoms to see the front desk to reschedule their interview.
“FYI for folks who may be on the fence about going to their asylum interviews,” Gomez wrote on Twitter along with a photo of the sign. “Wouldve been nice to know this ahead of time.”
Reprinted by permission of The Center for Investigative Reporting.