The Trump administration is facing calls to release thousands of nonviolent detainees amid growing fears of coronavirus outbreaks at immigrant detention centers.
Democratic lawmakers and immigration advocates clamoring for a release order got something of a boost this week when a federal judge in Washington, D.C., warned officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that the agency had a week to demonstrate adequate sanitary conditions in three family detention centers.
But advocates and lawmakers say that doesn't go far enough, arguing a detention center outbreak would ultimately spill over to regional health care facilities and put even more people at risk.
"There are at least four confirmed cases of immigrants in custody who have coronavirus, and five ICE facility employees who had tested positive — that was as of yesterday," Rep. Joaquin CastroJoaquin CastroFeehery: A better than even shot of flipping a Texas district Lawmakers call for investigation into proposed AT&T WarnerMedia, Discovery merger Israel says blacklisted NSO Group 'has nothing to do' with government policies MORE (D-Texas), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), said in a press call Tuesday.
"Immigrants are staging peaceful protests and hunger strikes to be released on concern for their life and subpar detention conditions," he added.
A federal judge in Pennsylvania this week ordered a local detention center to release 11 detainees with underlying conditions making them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19.
"We know that as our medical experts have said, it's not a question of if, but when COVID actually reaches the facility. And the danger is what happens once a COVID is inside of the facility. I think we all can see the danger that would happen in that case — people are in congregate environments in these detention centers," said Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) National Prison Project, who has been leading the group's litigation to release at-risk detainees.
Cho said the ACLU is pursuing seven such cases, but "are planning on filing additional cases, that's for sure."
Danielle Bennett, a spokeswoman for ICE, told The Hill in an email that the agency makes custody determinations "on a case-by-case basis."
"When making such decisions, ICE officers weigh a variety of factors, including the person’s criminal record, immigration history, ties to the community, risk of flight, and whether he or she poses a potential threat to public safety,” Bennett wrote. “ICE also routinely makes custody re-determinations of those in detention, based on individual circumstances, and may release detainees onto alternatives to detention (ATD) and other monitoring programs, for a variety of reasons.”
CHC members said in Tuesday’s press call that entire prison populations are at risk, even if the number of confirmed detention center infections is relatively low.
"As we've seen with coronavirus, for every known person that has tested positive and is known to have it, there may be hundreds or thousands that they've come into contact with that have the virus as well. They just don't know it either because they're asymptomatic or because they haven't been tested and positively identified as having a virus," said Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.).
Hundreds of inmates in state and federal prisons throughout the country have tested positive for COVID-19, and at least one inmate has died of the disease.
Some states and cities have announced or taken steps to release inmates due to the coronavirus. California is planning to release as many as 3,500 nonviolent inmates, and New York City has released 900.
Like prisons, detention centers don't have the necessary medical infrastructure to deal with an outbreak like the coronavirus. Influenza is a common cause of death at the facilities.
"More than a dozen immigrant children and adults have died in the last three years under custody. There's evidence that medical care that they get is substandard under normal circumstances," said Rep. Jesús García (D-Ill.).
It's not the first time immigration authorities and the CHC have sparred over medical care in detention centers.
In December, CHC members demanded ICE and Customs and Border Protection administer flu shots to inmates, after it was revealed that a detained Guatemalan boy died of the flu in May.
Immigration authorities shunned the prospect of vaccinating all detainees.
That makes the CHC's new goal — to release all non-priority detainees and leave space for social distancing within detention centers — a seemingly unthinkable request.
But Naureen Shah, the ACLU’s senior advocacy and policy counsel on immigrants' rights, said the gravity of the coronavirus threat could force federal authorities to rethink their positions.
"As this crisis continues, unfortunately, we will see the impact that it has on regional and local hospitals. And if you're an ICE field director looking at the capacity of a hospital to take individuals because of an outbreak that is happening in your facility, you may be thinking twice about whether or not you really should be keeping all those people there," said Shah.
"As our hospital system unfortunately reaches a breaking point, I expect to see more and more individual ICE officers and directors make the right decision in relation to federal custody," she added.