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Citing Pandemic, UN Human Rights Expert Urges US to Release Migrants 'Held for Processing'

"Alternatives to widespread immigration detention in the U.S. would also ensure that migrants are not arbitrarily detained."

A sign that reads "shut it down" is pictured at the Northwest Detention Center as during a protest at the Tacoma, Washington facility on Feb. 26, 2017.

A sign that reads "shut it down" is pictured at the Northwest Detention Center as during a protest at the Tacoma, Washington facility on Feb. 26, 2017. (Photo: Jason Redmond/AFP via Getty Images)

A United Nations human rights expert on Monday urged the U.S. government to stop detaining migrants who are being "held for processing" of their immigration claims in "overcrowded and unsanitary administrative centers," citing concerns about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

"It is very difficult to keep the necessary physical distance in overcrowded detention facilities," Felipe González Morales, the U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, said in statement. "Significantly reducing the number of detained migrants by releasing them into alternative settings can easily solve this."

"None of those migrants are detained for criminal offenses, but are simply awaiting decisions on their immigration claims," he added. "The authorities should assess the capacity of readily available alternatives measures in the country and elaborate a set of criteria to identify those in administrative detention that could be immediately released to alternative placements."

Alternatives to detention facilities—poor conditions of which were often decried by detainees and immigration rights advocates long before the coronavirus outbreak—include providing community-based accommodations and care to migrants.

Alluding to the U.S. government's long track record—particularly under President Donald Trump—of ignoring the human rights of migrants, González Morales said that "alternatives to widespread immigration detention in the U.S. would also ensure that migrants are not arbitrarily detained."

The Monday statement from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that U.N. human rights experts have "received repeated reports of unsanitary conditions and lack of proper healthcare" at the Tacoma Northwest Processing Center in Washington state.

One local newspaper editorial warned earlier this month that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility—run by the private, for-profit company the GEO Group—could be "a ticking time bomb, a potential for a 'coronavirus catastrophe.'"

González Morales said that rights experts were told "there is a lack of protective measures for detainees, that it is impossible to keep the recommended physical distance, and that new arrivals are not being put into isolation for medical observations," which "raises grave concerns that the coronavirus could spread in the center."

The special rapporteur has joined with five other U.N. experts in pressuring the U.S. government and the GEO Group to boost efforts to prevent the spread of the virus at the center, including by ensuring that all detainees have access to adequate healthcare and water and sanitation facilities.

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Among the group was Nils Melzer, U.N. special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, who highlighted González Morales' comments on Twitter Monday:

The new pressure from González Morales and his colleagues add to the mounting criticism of the Trump administration's immigration policies as well as the failures of federal, state, and local governments to protect people—especially those at high risk of dying from a COVID-19 infection—in all types of detention facilities, including jails and prisons.

An early April report from Amnesty International declared that "detaining anyone solely for migration-related reasons during a global pandemic is cruel, reckless, and deadly."

The Trump administration has also come under fire for exploiting the pandemic to push through controversial immigration policies that the president and top officials have sought from the beginning.

As Vox reported Monday:

Amid the pandemic, the Trump administration has closed the U.S.-Mexico border, implemented an expulsion order to swiftly turn away migrants at the border, and postponed all immigration court hearings for migrants who are waiting in Mexico for a decision on their asylum applications in the U.S. Those measures, coupled with the restrictions on asylum-seekers that were already in place, have brought the asylum system to a virtual standstill.

"We're worried about the rapid, systematic expulsions of persons including asylum-seekers from the U.S.," Sibylla Brodzinsky, a spokesperson for the U.N. high commissioner for refugees (UNCHR), told Vox. "Obviously, a pandemic of this nature warrants extraordinary measures at borders, but the expulsion of asylum-seekers, which basically results in refoulement, shouldn't be among those measures."

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