ICE gets sued to release immigrant detainees amid COVID-19 pandemic

The World
A detainee talks with an employee in an exam room in the medial unit during a media tour at Northwest ICE Processing Center

In the midst of closures and social distancing measures worldwide to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, US immigration detention centers remain full and crowded. There are urgent calls from immigrant and civil rights organizations for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release the most vulnerable — at least — for health safety reasons. 

People like Kelvin Melgar Alas are at heightened risk. The 40-year-old from El Salvador is living with approximately 900 others at a detention center in Tacoma, Washington — not far from the biggest recorded outbreak in the US. He's been hospitalized multiple times for pneumonia while detained.

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He's in a group setting, sleeping and eating with others. He and other medically vulnerable people like him are "terrified," said Matt Adams of the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project. The organization is suing to get people like Alas out of detention. 

Nearly 40,000 immigrants, including families, are currently held at detention centers — and local jails — across the US. Most are locked up not because of criminal convictions, but because they are going through immigration proceedings. 

Many detainees have family and community connections in the US. If they were released — on ankle monitors, for example — it could ease pandemic pressures within the centers, and protect the health of thousands. 

Within the centers, movement is restricted and conditions are cramped. There is fear that the novel coronavirus could spread quickly in these densely populated facilities. 

Related: Coronavirus closures leave international students in limbo

ICE spokespeople say the agency — and companies contracted to run the detention centers — are taking strict measures to slow the spread of the virus. They have stopped social visits and screened new detainees. 

But they haven't detailed quarantine areas or plans if an outbreak happens. It is unclear if solitary confinement cells at these centers may be used. 

"They can't take the measures that everyone else in the country is being told they need to take," Adams said.

Some staff and immigrants at the Tacoma detention facility have been tested for COVID-19, but results are still pending. 

And while detention centers have access to medical facilities, numerous investigations have reported rampant neglect. 

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