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Immigrants who are held in detention must be released immediately

Esther J. Cepeda on

CHICAGO -- As we brace for the brunt of this fast-spreading pandemic, it's a pressing national security imperative that immigrants held in detention must be released to their families immediately.

The federal government is keeping scores of people cheek by jowl in facilities that have been well-documented to be lacking in proper ventilation, food or even clean, running water. And many of these detainees already have compromised immune systems due to old age, chronic medical conditions or pregnancy.

As if it weren't bad enough to put immigrants in grave danger of becoming a huge vector of COVID-19 infections, this situation also puts at risk the people who police them, manage their cases, offer them medical care, defend them in court, prepare their food and clean up after them.

Whatever you might imagine when talking about immigrants in detention, the truth is that most either have no criminal record or have already served time for any offenses they've committed while in our country. And nearly all unauthorized immigrants who are being held in detention have already been processed and catalogued in multiple Department of Homeland Security, Department of Health and Human Services and other system databases.

"Based on countless reports from advocates, ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] doesn't even give soap or hot water, they're giving out moldy food -- the day-to-day conditions have led to dozens of deaths. Nine, so far, in this fiscal year," said Silky Shah, the executive director of the Detention Watch Network. "To be clear [a major outbreak of coronavirus infections] is imminent if it's not already happening, and while ICE has not reported any, we also know widespread testing also isn't happening."

Shah and a group of leaders from other immigrant-advocacy organizations recently held a briefing in which they called on the Trump administration to suspend ICE raids, postpone deportations and release immigrants from detention.

 

"We need to let them out before they get sick," Ranit Mishori, the senior medical adviser for Physicians for Human Rights and professor at Georgetown University School of Medicine, told me. "People from the outside who see detainees, health care workers and detention facility workers are actually putting the detainees more at risk, because those people come and go. The detainees themselves are sitting ducks for infection. Isolation is for those who are sick; the time to prevent immigrant detainees from getting sick and having an outbreak is now, before people need mass medical care."

The experts noted that President Trump is exposing an already vulnerable population to even higher risk by putting policies in place that have the effect of making immigrants likelier to get sick and scared to seek medical care if they suspect they've contracted coronavirus. These policies include the public charge rule, which penalizes legal and unauthorized immigrants alike for accessing publicly funded safety-net programs like food assistance.

"We need to understand this moment for what it is -- a disaster like Hurricane Katrina," said Marielena HincapiƩ, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. "We already have protocols in place for state agencies to let their criminal detainees be set free. ... it's important to remember that we need to take care of people regardless of whether they are an immigrant, a detainee or a criminal, we must be singularly focused on everyone's health."

Due to lack of transparency, it's unclear what protocols or policies are in place for the agencies and facilities that house immigrants to ensure detainees get information and resources to protect themselves against an outbreak.

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