ACLU to ICE: 'Release Immigrant Detainees Vulnerable to Coronavirus'

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Human Rights Watch and lawyers at the ACLU are urging ICE officials to beef up efforts for coronavirus prevention and care at California's largest detention center in Adelanto in San Bernardino County, as well as other detention centers. (John Moore/Getty Images)

The American Civil Liberties Union is calling on federal immigration authorities to release detainees on parole or bond from facilities in California who are vulnerable to becoming ill from COVID-19, such as those who are elderly or suffer from medical conditions.

The move, coupled with a slowdown in new arrests and lockups, would reduce the impact of a potentially deadly outbreak at crowded detention centers with a history of substandard medical care, said lawyers at the nonprofit.

“People have died at these detention centers,” said Eva Bitrán, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California. “We hope that in a time of pandemic, ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] takes precautions on the front end to make sure people are out of their custody and able to get medical care.”

In letters Wednesday, Bitrán and Human Rights Watch also urged ICE officials to beef up efforts to prevent transmission and care for any detainees who fall ill at the state’s largest detention center in Adelanto in San Bernardino County, and another one in Bakersfield. Failing to do so “may cost lives,” said the missives.

Other ACLU affiliates have sent similar letters to ICE authorities overseeing detention centers in other parts of California and in Washington state, which has endured the deadliest coronavirus outbreak in the country in the Seattle area.

This comes as health officials in San Francisco, Oakland and Santa Clara County prohibited gatherings of 1,000 people or more to try to halt the spread of the virus. The Adelanto ICE Processing Center has 1,940 beds at capacity.

The state has reported its fourth death from the respiratory illness, and the number of confirmed cases has ballooned to at least 198, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Four noncitizens held at detention centers have been tested for COVID-19 and the results were negative, an ICE spokesperson said in a statement. They declined to say where those suspected cases were located.

“The health, welfare and safety of ICE detainees is one of the agency’s highest priorities,” said the spokesperson. “ICE is actively working with state and local health partners to determine if any detainee requires additional testing or monitoring to combat the spread of the virus.”

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ICE has also implemented screening guidance for new detainees who are just arriving at detention centers, including isolating those who may show symptoms.

Earlier this week, operations at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Facility in Bakersfield seemed like “business as usual,” said Ambar Tovar, a directing attorney with the United Farm Workers Foundation.

There was no additional screening of visitors, no visible signage about how to prevent the spread of the virus or protect oneself and no readily available hand sanitizer in meeting rooms, said Tovar, who frequently visits detained clients at the 400-bed facility.

“There are no increased precautions that I saw are being taken,” Tovar said. “You would not be able to tell walking into that facility that the entire country is in a state of emergency.”

She wondered how much information on the coronavirus has been communicated to detainees, whose top complaint is delayed or inadequate medical care, she said.

“If somebody were to exhibit any symptoms related to the coronavirus, how long will it take for those symptoms to be addressed?” Tovar said.

At the detention center in Adelanto, where federal inspectors have reported substandard medical care, employees on Tuesday also did not appear to take additional precautions, said Lizbeth Abeln, immigrant detention coordinator with the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice.

“As of now, we don't see any sense of urgency from the staff or from ICE, which is kind of normal for the facility, given the history of medical neglect and the lack of process when it comes to diseases,” said Abeln, who visits detainees about once a week.

The Mesa Verde and Adelanto immigration detention centers are owned and operated by The Geo Group, Inc., one of the nation’s largest private prison companies.

A spokesperson for the Florida-based company said they are working closely with federal and state health officials, and have issued guidance to facilities, in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

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“We will continue to monitor and evaluate in conjunction with our government partners and local health agencies to ensure the health and safety of all those in our care,” said a Geo Group spokesperson.

But on Friday afternoon, ICE announced it is now suspending social visitation at detention centers, including by volunteers from nonprofits who help monitor conditions inside the facilities.

ICE currently detains about 38,000 people on any given day. Twenty people have died in custody since April 2018, according to ICE figures.

ICE plans to isolate detainees with mild symptoms on-site and transport anyone with more severe symptoms to “appropriate hospitals with expertise in high-risk care,” said the agency spokesperson.

During previous outbreaks of mumps, chicken pox and other infectious diseases at detention facilities in California, officials have put dozens of detainees on lockdowns that can last for weeks, and eliminate their ability to call attorneys or relatives, said the ACLU's Bitrán.

“We do want to make sure that any isolation measures that become medically necessary are, first of all, made with scientific input from physicians and people who know how to best contain the spread of the virus, as well as keeping in mind the very real constitutional rights that immigrants in detention have,” Bitrán said.

This story has been updated.

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