Congressional Hispanic Caucus calls on ICE to release detainees amid COVID-19 crisis

Detainees live in close quarters, can't frequently wash their hands, don't have sanitizers and have to buy their own soap.
Congressional Hispanic Caucus Discusses Supreme Court DACA Case
Joined by fellow members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Chairman Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, speaks at a news conference at the Capitol on Nov. 12, 2019.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

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By Ali Gostanian

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus on Tuesday demanded the release of hundreds of people held in immigration detention to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and stave off an outbreak within the jails.

Four detainees and five Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention employees had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday, according to ICE, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security.

In a call with news media, advocates from the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Immigrant Justice Center, as well as members of the Hispanic caucus, implored the Trump administration, specifically ICE, to heed public health experts who have advised releasing detained immigrants.

"ICE must release all detainees now before lives are lost," said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, chairman of the Hispanic caucus.

Earlier this month, 3,000 medical professionals sent an open letter to ICE urging the release of detainees.

Caucus members emphasized that conditions inside ICE facilities are likely to lead to an outbreak, noting that living conditions prevent social distancing and don't allow detained people to wash their hands frequently and that hygiene and disinfecting products are not available.

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Tania Linares Garcia, senior litigation attorney for the National Immigrant Justice Center, said clients detained in ICE facilities have told her that they do not have supplies to sanitize their living spaces.

Others have complained that they have soap only if they can afford to buy it from detention centers' commissaries, she said.

Rep. Linda Sánchez, D-Calif., said an outbreak in detention centers is a very preventable crisis.

"We need ICE to act," she said.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said the conditions pose an enormous risk to detainees' health and safety.

"This is a humanitarian crisis that is right on our doorstep," Ocasio-Cortez said. "A decision to do nothing is a decision to do harm."

Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, said ICE officials should release nonviolent detainees who present no threat to the public, family members, an attorney or sponsors.

Those with underlying conditions that make them more vulnerable should be released immediately, Garcia added. People who are deemed at high risk include those with hypertension, diabetes and respiratory issues.

In a statement, Garcia said ICE has had issues with crowding and containing outbreaks in the past. She added that ICE depends on local medical facilities to treat detainees. Such facilities in some parts of the country are struggling to keep up with coronavirus cases and are strapped for protective gloves, masks and ventilators; they are also delaying some procedures to accommodate the coronavirus caseloads.

"ICE's failure to reduce detention numbers and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 has a real possibility of creating a severe health crisis for detention centers and overwhelming local health care facilities," Garcia said.

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The ACLU, which has sued ICE facilities in multiple states to demand the release of detainees, said it is calling on ICE and Customs and Border Protection to release all migrants in their facilities.

"No one should be forced to live in conditions that imperil their lives during this public health crisis," said Naureen Shah, senior advocacy and policy counsel on immigrants' rights at the ACLU.

A federal judge in New York last week ordered ICE detainees released from county jails where cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed. While Hispanic caucus members applauded the decision, they said it is not enough.

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Suzanne Gamboa contributed.