Calls for Trump administration to release migrants from detention increase amid COVID-19 pandemic

Federal agencies put immigrants and immigration workers at risk amid coronavirus

Published March 22, 2020 9:29AM (EDT)

Immigration Detention Center (J. Emilio Flores/Corbis via Getty Images)
Immigration Detention Center (J. Emilio Flores/Corbis via Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on The Texas Tribune.

The migrant arrived at a South Texas immigration facility in Texas on Feb. 24 after seeking asylum in the United States. The new coronavirus hadn't yet become a global pandemic, and the U.S. had only five confirmed cases.

The world has since been upended by the virus. As of Thursday, more than 11,000 Americans had been infected, including more than 160 Texans, and the numbers are expected to grow substantially as testing becomes more widespread.

The man, an asylum seeker detained at the Karnes County Family Residential Center with his wife and children, asked that his name not be used out of fear of retaliation. He said the panic isn't confined to the outside world.

"I have been watching the news about the coronavirus. I am very afraid to be detained with something like this going on," he wrote in a sworn affidavit sent to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. (The group redacted the man's name before sharing the affidavit with The Texas Tribune.) "If it comes here, we are doomed. Lack of medical care will kill us."

Since the coronavirus became a national emergency, federal immigration agencies have made some changes to their operations to try to minimize the spread of the virus. The Executive Office for Immigration Review announced last weekend it was suspending hearings for immigrants who are not in detention — but hearings for all other cases continue in most immigration courtrooms.

On Tuesday, the administration announced plans to immediately send back to Mexico undocumented immigrants apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents between official ports of entry, to avoid locking up more people who could pose a threat to agents' health, The Washington Post reported. That plan hasn't been implemented yet, pending discussions with Mexican officials, but human rights groups have criticized the proposal as a way to gut due process and eliminate asylum altogether.

And on Wednesday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced the agency would concentrate its enforcement efforts during the pandemic on people deemed a threat to public safety and on convicted criminals. On its website, ICE said that "we remain committed to the health and safety of our employees and the general public."

As of Tuesday, no confirmed cases of COVID-19 had been reported in federal immigration detention facilities. But immigrant rights groups and attorneys said that isn't enough. They're calling for the government to release its detainees — who include undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers, people who overstayed their visas and others — before the pandemic creates an irreversible health crisis inside detention facilities.

"A number of detainees in recent days have told us how frightened they are to be locked in detention as the coronavirus spreads throughout the country," RAICES said in a statement. "We demand that ICE release all immigrant detainees immediately."

About 700 people are detained at the Karnes facility, according to RAICES. The unit has a capacity of 830, according to the GEO Group, the Florida-based company that contracts with ICE to manage the facility. ICE's San Antonio office, which covers south central Texas, had just over 5,800 detainees as of March 14, while another 1,000 are detained in the El Paso area, according to an ICE spokesperson.

The agency's website details its procedures in the event that a detained person becomes ill: "Detainees who meet CDC criteria for epidemiologic risk of exposure to COVID-19 are housed separately from the general population," the statement says. "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.

"If ICE must release an ill or isolated detainee, health staff immediately notify the local public health agencies to coordinate further monitoring, if required," the statement adds.

ICE also said it would "exercise discretion to delay enforcement actions until after the crisis or utilize alternatives to detention, as appropriate."

More than 750 private entities wrote to ICE acting Director Matthew T. Albence on Thursday arguing that the agency's track record under the Trump administration does nothing to instill confidence that detainees are being kept in safe environments.

"Under the Trump administration, we have seen a notable increase in reported deaths in detention, an alarming trend that is tied to fatal medical neglect, unsanitary conditions, and inadequate resources for people detained," the letter states. "In just five months, at least eight lives have been lost in ICE custody — already equaling the total number of people who died in detention in the entire previous fiscal year."

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. 

By Julián Aguilar

MORE FROM Julián Aguilar

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Asylum Coronavirus Covid-19 Detention Facilities Ice Immigration Trump Administration