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'Cruel, Reckless, and Deadly': Amnesty Warns of Looming Covid-19 Disaster for Detained Immigrants and Refugees in US

"We are adrift, about to sink, because if there is one person to be infected, in our unit we would all perish."

Activists who stayed mostly in their cars for social distancing, lined Summit Ave, honking horns outside the Governor's Residence in St Paul last month as they called for the release of high risk prisoners and ICE detainees from MN facilities to lower the chances of infection. (Photo: Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

Human rights activists who stayed mostly in their cars for social distancing, lined Summit Ave, honking horns outside the Governor's Residence in St Paul last month as they called for the release of high risk prisoners and ICE detainees from MN facilities to lower the chances of infection. (Photo: Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

Amnesty International on Tuesday drew attention to the public health threat simmering in the United States' vast immigration detention system as a result of the Trump administration's "reckless" response to the coronavirus pandemic, with a new report calling for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to parole as many detainees as possible and release all children from custody without delay.

"ICE continues to fail to adopt effective measures to prevent the pandemic in immigration centers across the country, putting everyone's safety in peril"
—Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty USA
"Today, the health and safety of every one of us is bound together. The United States has confirmed more cases of COVID-19 than any other country in the world, yet ICE continues to fail to adopt effective measures to prevent the pandemic in immigration centers across the country, putting everyone's safety in peril," said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, in a press statement.

Amnesty's warning comes in a new report—titled "'We Are Adrift, About to Sink': The looming COVID-19 disaster in U.S. immigration detention facilities" (pdf)—released on Tuesday, just a week after ICE said that there were confirmed cases of COVID-19 at six of its detention facilities.

Those confirmed cases which affect both staff and detainees, warns the human rights groups, shows how the highly contagious and deadly disease poses a public health threat both within and beyond the confines of the prison walls.

Even before the pandemic broke out, ICE had "a well-documented recent history of gross medical negligence in its facilities," the report states. But "detaining anyone solely for migration-related reasons during a global pandemic is cruel, reckless, and deadly."

Among the problems laid out in the report are that the agency has failed to provide detainees adequate sanitation, hygiene, and the possibility of appropriate social distancing. It also rebukes the agency for the transfer of detainees without adequate quarantine time.

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The spouse of one immigration detainee being held at Aurora Detention Facility in Colorado and cited in the report gave a chilling account.

"Three guys have gotten fevers and haven’t been moved out of the general population," the spouse said. "These guys are sitting ducks for contracting COVID-19. My husband especially needs out right now. He'll die of illness!"

"We are adrift, about to sink, because if there is one person to be infected, in our unit we would all perish," said an immigration detainee on hunger strike at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington. "We see how guards don't have the most minimum idea of what safety or medical care means. Here, all of us are going to pay the consequences," the detainee said.

The report lays out a number of recommendations, calling on ICE to:

  • Urgently grant humanitarian parole to as many detainees as possible –prioritizing those who are older and at higher-risk of harm from COVID-19 –so that they can socially distance themselves in safer and sanitary locations during this public health emergency.
  • Halt all forced deportations and transfers of immigration detainees to other facilities, unless necessary for public health and to provide medical care.
  • Provide regular, full and detailed updates to any members of Congress or their staff representatives on the conditions of ICE immigration detention facilities.
  • Release all children from ICE custody expeditiously, in line with federal court orders and the Flores Settlement Agreement, alongwith their parents, guardians, or caretakers in order to prevent family separations and uphold family unity

"ICE's unnecessary detention of tens of thousands of people poses a massive threat to public health," said Guevara-Rosas.

The agency, she added, "must urgently provide alternatives to detention and grant humanitarian parole to immigration detainees except in the most extraordinary of circumstances requiring ongoing detention."

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