Health Immigration

House Democrats Urge ICE to Release Detainees Amid Spike in COVID-19 Cases

On Monday, Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-TX) and Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) called upon ICE to release detainees and improve conditions ICE detention centers as COVID-19 cases continue to increase. Since early 2020, the pandemic has taken the lives of nearly 120,000 Americans. States like Texas and Arizona house approximately 40 immigration detention centers, and are experiencing a surge in reported cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations.

After visiting detention centers in Texas, Garcia and Castro spoke with reporters to detail the conditions they observed. Castro, who likened the centers to “petri dishes,” asserted that ICE “barely lifts a finger to make sure that these folks are safe.” Garcia similarly questioned ICE’s commitment to taking the precautions needed to avoid a severe health crisis within its centers. Garcia told reporters that while detainees have been able to make use of the masks they were provided with two weeks ago, the crowded conditions in which they live have not been conducive to proper social distancing.

Other spaces that require individuals to live in close quarters, including prisons and nursing homes, have been the subject of scrutiny as the pandemic has ravaged the United States. Many of these spaces – particularly nursing homes – have been required to develop systems that increase the capacity to test large numbers of staff members and individuals. However, this has not been the case in immigration detention centers.

ICE was ordered by the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in April to release minors. This decision came after leaked images and stories revealed the centers’ failure to properly contain cases, handle testing, and disseminate information to detainees about virus prevention. However, cases have continuously risen in detention centers, and particularly in those located in the southwestern region.

An NBC News report found that by late May, cases had risen sharply in detention centers nationwide, including those located near Haskell and Pearsall, Texas. Frio County, in which Pearsall is located, reported that 90% of its documented COVID-19 cases were diagnosed in immigrants held in detention centers.

Castro made note of the fact that the White House has not issued guidance that requires ICE to properly test staff members and detainees for COVID-19. Moreover, Castro told reporters that just one detention center possesses a testing machine and, as a result, shares this machine with other centers.

ICE has not acknowledged the troubling findings regarding its testing capacity or conditions in detention centers. It also has not addressed calls to release migrants to reduce potential outbreaks. As of Monday, ICE reasserted the fact that it tests individuals on a “case-by-case basis,” and claimed that “the agency’s top priority is to provide the health, welfare, and safety of the residents and detainees in custody.”

Sources: Texas Tribune 6/22/2020; Center for Disease Control and Prevention 6/22/2020; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 5/21/2020; CNBC 6/22/2020; New York Times 4/2/2020; NBC News 5/31/2020

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