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Dr. Franklyn Rocha Cabrero and Dr. Claudia A. Alvarez join with protesters outside of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Broward Transitional Center on May 1, 2020 in Pompano Beach, Florida. The protesters are demanding that ICE release people from the facility to their families and ensure that immigrants and detention center personnel receive prompt testing and treatment for coronavirus. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Rights Group Demands ICE End 'Beyond Inhumane' Detention and Deportations as Covid-19 Pandemic Intensifies

At least 1,000 active Covid-19 cases have been detected in detention facilities, and continued deportations have been linked to outbreaks in Central and South America.

Julia Conley

Blaming the Trump administration's "irresponsible actions" for the ongoing spread of Covid-19 in immigration detention centers across the U.S. and in countries where ICE has deported hundreds of people since March, the International Rescue Committee on Monday demanded that people be released from detention immediately to mitigate the spread of the virus.

ICE currently acknowledges 3,917 cases of Covid-19 in detention facilities since the pandemic began in March, but the IRC called the agency's data into question, warning that widespread testing is not being done in all facilities, where tens of thousands of people are being held.

"Public health experts universally agree that social distancing is one of the most important measures we can all take to combat the spread of Covid-19, something that is impossible in ICE's detention facilities."
—Olga Byrne, IRC

"The number of Covid-19 cases could in fact be 15 times higher than what ICE discloses," the IRC warned.

The Committee reported that currently, at least 1,000 people who have active cases of Covid-19 are being held in immigration detention facilities. 

"Locking up individuals seeking safety during the most infectious pandemic in 100 years is beyond inhumane," said Olga Byrne, director of immigration for IRC. "Public health experts universally agree that social distancing is one of the most important measures we can all take to combat the spread of Covid-19, something that is impossible in ICE's detention facilities."

Clients of the IRC have reported to officials that ICE is not following basic sanitary and social distancing protocols, with employees of the agency telling refugees and immigrants, "health isn't ICE's responsibility."

"Here I am in a room with over 100 people—like being in a crowded market," reported Philip, an IRC client from the Democratic Republic of Congo who was recently transferred from one ICE facility in Texas to another. "We are given soap and masks, but ICE agents do not wear masks, and do not respect quarantine—which is especially bad since we share so many spaces and materials. I have never seen them measure a single person’s temperature. At the last center they weren't doing widespread testing, and if you were presumed sick you were simply removed and placed in another room, without testing the others."

Nearly 70 positive cases were detected at the facility where Philip was recently moved from, and some detention centers report hundreds of positive cases—pointing to a positivity rate of at least 80%. 

Immigration Centers of America-Farmville in Virginia currently has 261 cases of the coronavirus, out of 359 people who were tested there in July. Across the ICE detention system, an average 20% positivity rate has been recorded—well over the 5% rate recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) for states and regions before it's considered safe to lift social distancing and lockdown protocols.

The IRC called for the passage of the Immigration Enforcement Moratorium Act, a bill introduced recently in both the U.S. House and Senate. The legislation would halt the arrest and detention of all asylum-seekers during the pandemic. 

"Given strong evidence on community-based alternatives, it is unjustified to continue placing noncitizens' health at risk by forcing them to remain in congested and unsanitary prison settings," said Byrne. "Releases should be supported with individuals having access to clear information on their rights and obligations regarding their ongoing legal proceedings, case management, and health services (including testing) in a time of Covid, relying on community-based alternatives and sheltering at home to avoid furthering the spread."

The call from IRC comes two weeks after 120 human rights groups, led by Amnesty International, demanded the release of all families from detention following a court order to release children from the facilities. 

"Parents must be released with their children to preserve family unity, as family separation is not in the best interests of the child," the groups said last month.  

In addition to demanding the release of immigrants from detention, IRC accused ICE of directly fueling coronavirus outbreaks in Central and South American countries since March, as the U.S. is believed to have deported hundreds of immigrants since the beginning of the pandemic. 

The U.S. has sent "over 450 likely deportation flights since the beginning of the year to 15 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean," IRC reported. "Eleven of these countries have confirmed deportees returned positive with Covid-19."

Nearly 200 deportation flights were sent from states with severe coronavirus outbreaks.

In El Salvador, Covid-19 cases skyrocketed from zero to nearly 14,000 since mid-March, and cases in Guatemala rose from just one to more than 43,000, "undoubtedly exacerbated by ongoing deportations of Covid-positive deportees" from the U.S., which has the worst coronavirus outbreak in the world.

"The administration must immediately halt all deportations while a public health emergency is ongoing—lest these deportations accelerate the spread of the virus to countries with fragile healthcare systems equally in the throes of this atrocious pandemic," said Byrne.

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