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Coronavirus: US judge orders release of migrant families in detention centres

Order comes amid reports that detainees are receiving 'subpar' medical care

Spencer Hsu
Tuesday 31 March 2020 12:44 BST
An ICE officer on patrol. The White House wants to ban illegal immigrants from being counted in the census. AP
An ICE officer on patrol. The White House wants to ban illegal immigrants from being counted in the census. AP (AP)

A federal judge in Washington pressed US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to release migrants held in family detention centres, citing the imminent risk of coronavirus outbreaks in confinement and their rapid spread to surrounding communities.

Judge James Boasberg of Washington stopped short of ordering the immediate release of about 1,350 members of migrant families detained at three centres in Pennsylvania and Texas as part of a lawsuit advocates recently filed. But during a hearing on Monday, the judge directed US immigration authorities to report on their efforts to release families in custody by next week.

“I will order that in a week [6 April], the government has got to come back to me and give me answers about the capacity of these centres, videotapes of living conditions and steps taken towards release,” Mr Boasberg said after a 45-minute hearing.

“Circumstances are changing rapidly, and if there are cases in these centres or there are other problems that are not compliant, I will revisit” the petitioners emergency release request, the judge added.

Mr Boasberg's order expands on a similar one US district judge Dolly Gee issued on Saturday in Los Angeles related to an emergency hearing seeking the release of 6,900 detained children. Ms Gee had ordered that federal agencies operating detention facilities for migrant children report their efforts to release children in custody by 6 April. Mr Boasberg widened the order to cover their parents.

Mr Boasberg also directed US immigration authorities to comply with Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for congregate housing and the Constitution's guarantee that prisoners be held in safe and sanitary conditions.

Mr Boasberg entered his order in a lawsuit filed on 21 March by three groups helping migrant families seeking asylum and being held at three centres in Pennsylvania and Texas, under the Trump administration's family detention policy.

Lawyers for the Refugee and Immigrant Centre for Education and Legal Services, the Rapid Defence Network, and Aldea, the People's Justice Centre, argued that their clients are “trapped and at risk of serious, irreparable harm” in situations they called “a tinderbox”.

The lawsuit said groups of about 60, 500 and 800 detained mothers, fathers and children live, eat and sleep in close quarters at the three facilities and cannot meet hygiene and “social distancing” standards recommended to prevent the spread of the virus.

The complaint asserts that up to 100 people sit “elbow to elbow” in lunchrooms at tables of 10, soap is limited, access to hand sanitiser is limited or nonexistent and cleaning of centres is typically done by volunteer detainees who are paid $1 a day and not provided hand sanitiser or masks.

“Families in [detention centres] are scared and concerned for their lives,” the complaint alleged. “It is almost certain to expect Covid-19 to infect and spread rapidly in family residential centres, especially when people cannot engage in proper hygiene or isolate themselves from infected or asymptomatic residents or staff.”

The lawsuit said authorities have begun to release some families that include pregnant women or people with asthma from the Texas facilities.

Vanessa Molina, an attorney with the Justice Department's Office of Immigration Litigation, said that the department is complying with Ms Gee's similar order for children and that protective measures being adapted for children would also presumably apply to parents held as family units in the same facility.

Ms Molina said ICE is complying with CDC guidelines for civil detention facilities. She added that standards are not specific but are “malleable” depending on each particular setting.

Ms Gee had found that ICE operations appeared “deficient”, based on protocols reported on 15 March, and she ordered the administration to “make every effort to promptly and safely release” migrant children. Her order covered children at ICE's family residential centres in Texas and Pennsylvania. Ms Gee said the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) appeared compliant with CDC guidelines at shelters for about 3,600 unaccompanied minors who crossed the border alone and are housed until they can be placed with a parent or guardian. She ordered the ORR to report on the release of children only in states with 3,000 or more cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

ICE and the ORR reported their first coronavirus cases in detention centres they run on 19 March, involving staff members at an ICE adult facility and an ORR centre for unaccompanied minors.

Also on 19 March, two contract physicians for the Department of Homeland Security's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties wrote a to House of Representatives oversight panel urging the department to consider releasing all immigrant detainees who do not pose a risk to public safety citing health and safety concerns.

On Tuesday, ICE reported the first migrant in custody to test positive, a 31-year-old man from Mexico quarantined at Bergen County jail in New Jersey.

The ORR on Thursday began reporting that four unaccompanied migrant children in custody at a shelter in New York tested positive for the coronavirus.

Families make up a small fraction of the more than 40,000 immigrants held daily in county jails, private prisons and detention facilities across the United States.

Family Residential Centres are reserved for asylum-seeking families who are not in criminal proceedings and do not pose a danger to the community. They allow commingling of detainees regardless of age or gender.

Contract operators say detainees are provided with schooling, medical care, recreation and “life skills/chores”, “free time”, and access to legal and religious services.

Advocates for immigrants say the facilities are effectively jails that hold children as young as infants with their parents, and provide subpar medical care. Hundreds of families are exhibiting symptoms that include coughs, fever and shortness of breath but are not being tested or receiving adequate medicine, the lawsuit says.

The Washington Post

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