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Growing Calls To Close Immigration Courts And Release Detainees As Virus Spreads

David McNew
Getty Images

U.S. authorities face growing calls to shutter all of the nation's immigration courts, and to release detained immigrants who do not pose a threat to public safety after an ICE detention center worker tested positive for the coronavirus.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement reported for the first time this week that one of its workers has the virus that causes COVID-19. ICE also says there are no confirmed cases of coronavirus among its more than 37,000 detainees nationwide.

But immigrant advocates and physicians warn that an outbreak in an ICE detention facility is inevitable as the pandemic spreads and the number of cases in the U.S. rises quickly.

"A coronavirus outbreak at immigration detention facilities is imminent, if it's not already happening," said Silky Shah with the Detention Watch Network.

More than 3,000 physicians signed a letter urging ICE to release detainees while their legal cases proceed — particularly adults over 60 and people with serious chronic medical conditions that would put them at higher risk in the event of an outbreak.

"They're just stuck there like sitting ducks," said Dr. Ranit Mishori, who also signed the letter. Mishori is a professor at Georgetown University School of Medicine and medical adviser to the group Physicians for Human Rights. "The window of opportunity is rapidly, rapidly closing because I think we need to let them out before they become sick."

ICE says the worker who tested positive is a member of the medical staff at the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey. The staffer did not routinely engage directly with detainees, according to ICE, and has been in self-quarantine since developing symptoms.

Nearly half of immigrants detained by ICE have been accused of no crime other than civil immigration violations, and many probably would not have been held under previous administrations.

Some detained immigrants described a feeling of helplessness and confusion in the face of the widening pandemic.

"I wish they were transparent and tell us the truth, so we wouldn't be anxious," said Virginia, an asylum-seeker from Venezuela who's detained at the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center, about 90 miles west of Baton Rouge.

"We know people have gotten sick, but we don't know what it is," she said in Spanish through an interpreter. "It's so hard being in here without knowing."

Virginia says she's detained in a large room along with more than 50 other women, including her sister Patricia, who is also seeking asylum. They asked us not to use their full names because their cases are still pending.

Their room is under quarantine, along with several others in the detention facility, the sisters said. Patricia says her concern about the coronavirus spiked after an Ecuadorian woman in their room developed flu-like symptoms.

"Her bed is two beds away from mine," Patricia said. "She'd spend hours sleeping, deep coughing, lots of it. Her body was aching, she didn't get out of bed one day. ... Her face was red, flushed. She looked hot, she had a high temperature."

Patricia said the Ecuadorian woman had tested negative for the flu, and was now being tested for coronavirus.

"We know there are cases near here, about an hour from here," Patricia said. "The staff comes and goes, we are locked up here, we really don't know anything."

ICE says it is taking precautions to protect detainees. The agency has temporarily suspended social visits at all of its detention centers.

And some U.S. immigration courts have closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic. But others are still open, and hearings for immigrants in detention are still taking place — despite calls from judges, prosecutors and immigration lawyers to postpone them.

The union that represents immigration judges renewed its calls to close down all immigration courts after an ICE prosecutor in Newark, N.J., tested positive for coronavirus, the union said on Twitter.

Ashley Tabaddor, president of the immigration judge's union, said there's been no transparency from the government. "COVID-19 does not discriminate," she told reporters, according to KERA. "There's no engagement. There's no discussion with any stakeholder."

Fanny Behar-Ostrow, head of the union representing ICE attorneys, told reporters that migrants are being forced to choose "between attending court on the one hand or protecting themselves against exposure to the coronavirus by not attending court."

Imelda Maynard, an attorney with Catholic Charities, attended immigration court in El Paso earlier this week. "None of the people in there had masks on," she told KERA. "There really isn't room in that courtroom for the people appearing to sit six feet apart from one another. It's a pretty small courtroom."

Immigration lawyers in Boston say they're increasingly concerned about the spread of coronavirus after a courtroom there abruptly closed earlier this week.

"I was walking towards the waiting room, and one of the judges popped out of the courtroom and loudly announced: 'My courtroom is now closed because yesterday there was someone in the courtroom who is presumed positive,' " immigration attorney Susan Roses told WBUR.

There's also growing concern about the spread of the coronavirus in shelters for unaccompanied migrant children that are run by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.

"It is our responsibility to effectively limit exposure to this disease and prepare to manage outbreaks of COVID-19," Sen. Ed Markey wrote in a letter to the Administration for Children and Families, which oversees ORR. "This responsibility is especially serious when it comes to the care of vulnerable children."

NPR's Marisa Peñaloza contributed to this story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.
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