EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — A federal agency’s alleged mishandling of detainees amid the COVID-19 pandemic violates their rights and facilitates the spread of the virus in American communities, members of the House Judiciary Committee said.
Speaking at an online town hall Wednesday, the Democratic members of the committee — Republicans were said to have been invited but declined — stated they sent a letter to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on April 7 warning of an impending health crisis unless non-violent detainees were released. Those recommendations were ignored and now more than 800 detainees and some contracted guards have tested positive for the virus, they said.
“ICE practices and policies have essentially fueled the spread of coronavirus not just among the vulnerable population that is in their custody, but basically the community,” said U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, a member of the committee.
The congresswoman from El Paso said lawyers, advocates, visitors and detention center employees were also exposed and carried the virus elsewhere.
“They go home to their families, to the community and put others at risk,” she said. “ICE has fueled the spread of the virus with their policies like MPP (Migrant Protection Protocols). They send vulnerable asylum seekers to Mexico and with the flights to Central America we were basically exporting the virus.”
Other committee members explained that at least 99 migrants flown from ICE facilities to third countries like Guatemala tested positive for COVID-19 during their arrival.
“ICE should halt deportations, release non-violent detainees and follow CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines,” Escobar said.
Border Report requested comment from ICE but did not get an immediate response.
On its website, ICE says it has taken important steps to further safeguard those in our care, including temporarily suspending social visitation in all detention facilities.
“The health, welfare and safety of (ICE) detainees is one of the agency’s highest priorities,” ICE says on the “ICE Guidance on COVID-19” webpage. “Since the onset of reports of (COVID-19), ICE epidemiologists have been tracking the outbreak, regularly updating infection prevention and control protocols, and issuing guidance to ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC) staff for the screening and management of potential exposure among detainees.”
Committee chairman Jerry Nadler, D-New York, said the agency has mismanaged the response to COVID-19, as evidenced by how contagion has “skyrocketed” since early April, when the letter was sent.
“Tens of thousands of civil detainees have been held in terrible conditions for long periods,” he said. And, because the agency hasn’t tested all detainees, “it’s likely that the number of COVID cases is much higher.”
Long-time committee member U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-California, also called on ICE to release non-violent detainees and stop sending asylum seekers to Mexico.
“Even as even (the Trump administration) pushed to shut the border to asylum families, it has exported COVID to other countries, undermining worldwide response,” she said.