Groups: Release immigrant detainees at high coronavirus risk

GENE JOHNSON

SEATTLE (AP) — Immigrant rights groups want U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release detainees at its Washington state jail who are at high risk from the coronavirus.

In a letter sent to ICE late Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and Columbia Legal Services said ICE should release on parole any detainees who are older than 60, pregnant, or who have underlying conditions such as a weakened immune system or heart or lung disease. Those in detention are especially vulnerable to contagious outbreaks, they said.

It wasn't immediately clear how many detainees at ICE's 1,575-bed Northwest detention center in Tacoma might be considered high-risk. A statement Tuesday from ICE provided no indication that the agency is considering releases unless ordered by a judge.

The Seattle area has the deadliest coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., with at least two dozen deaths as of Tuesday — most linked to a suburban nursing home.

The GEO Group, a for-profit corporation that runs the detention facility, said Tuesday it has not had any confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the jail. The company declined to say how many detainees or staff had shown symptoms or been tested.

In an emailed statement, ICE similarly said it had no confirmed cases. The agency is following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control in terms of when detainees and staff should be tested, and that as of March 3, four detainees had met that criteria. Staff are being provided protection equipment such as masks.

Those at high-risk can be kept together in units, the agency said: “The CDC advises self-monitoring at home for people in the community who meet epidemiologic risk criteria, and who do not have fever or symptoms of respiratory illness. In detention settings, cohorting serves as an alternative to self-monitoring at home.”

The agency said it is screening new detainees for COVID-19 and that its protocols call for medically isolating those who have mild symptoms, while those with moderate to severe symptoms or who need higher levels of care are transported to hospitals. Sixteen of the 20 detention centers run by the ICE Health Services Corps have airborne infection isolation rooms, it said.

"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,” ICE said.

Enoka Herat, immigration counsel at the ACLU of Washington, called the agency's statement inadequate.

“Instead of doing something proactive and preventative, they're waiting for the worst-case scenario,” she said.

There has been increasing concern nationally about how a coronavirus outbreak in jails might affect prisoners, and immigrant rights activists in New York on Friday demanded that ICE provide information about what precautions it is taking and how it would handle an outbreak at detention facilities there.

Immigration judges have grappled with how to handle hearings in their courtrooms. In the absence of guidance from the Justice Department, which runs the immigration court system, the union that represents immigration judges on Monday sent out guidance. It included posters with the CDC's coronavirus information as well as advice that judges keep hand-sanitizer on the bench and on counsel tables and that they limit the number of people in their courtrooms.

Advocates have also asked the Department of Homeland Security to make clear that it will not conduct immigration enforcement operations in or around hospitals or medical clinics. Several Democratic U.S. senators, including Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California, sent DHS a letter to that effect last week.

“Immigration enforcement actions, when they take place in or around hospitals or other medical facilities, could discourage undocumented immigrants from seeking necessary medical care,” the letter said.

ICE's statement said that absent unusual circumstances it does not conduct operations around medical facilities and that people should seek care if they need it.

Jails and prisons across the country have been stepping up inmate screenings, sanitizing cells and urging lawyers to scale back in-person visits to prevent the new coronavirus from spreading through their vast inmate populations.

“People in detention are highly vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses,” the immigrant rights groups' letter said. “They are housed in close quarters and are often in poor health. Without the active engagement of NWDC’s administration, they have little ability to inform themselves about preventive measures, or to take such measures if they do manage to learn of them.”

Given that Washington state has the nation's most severe coronavirus outbreak, the groups also said ICE should stop any transfers in and out of the Northwest detention center. Any response to the disease should not result in prolonged or widespread lockdowns that might violate detainees' rights, they said.

Maru Mora Villalpando, who monitors the Northwest detention center with the group La Resistancia, said a detainee who was released on Friday had been in medical isolation for undisclosed reasons. He reported that the medical isolation unit was full, she said.

“The fact that the unit is full yet the detention center is not at capacity is a sign local authorities should be doing something,” Mora Villalpando said. “We are really worried.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.