Migrants and Advocates Call to Close Detention Centers as COVID-19 Spreads

A new lawsuit argues that an outbreak in detention could overwhelm local health care systems.

Immigrants seeking asylum at the ICE South Texas Family Residential Center in August 2019, in Dilley.

Immigrants seeking asylum at the ICE South Texas Family Residential Center in August 2019, in Dilley. AP Photo/Eric Gay

As COVID-19 cases begin to permeate the immigration system nationwide, detainees in Texas are calling for better conditions and release. Their pleas became more urgent after at least one employee at a Houston lockup had a confirmed case of coronavirus. 

Over the past two weeks, hunger strikes and protests fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in clashes between detainees and staff, as well as the use of force. Meanwhile, immigration legal aid groups including RAICES Texas have campaigned and filed lawsuits in federal court calling for the immediate release of families in detention due to the threat of the virus. 

“What happens next will be determined by actions we take now,” Dr. Ranit Mishori, senior medical advisor at Physicians for Human Rights, said on a media call last week.  “The window to act is closing rapidly.”

The RAICES lawsuit was filed on behalf of families detained in facilities in Karnes County and Dilley, among other lockups. The suit argues that social distancing is impossible in detention, children could become carriers of the illness, and an outbreak in detention could overwhelm local health care systems. Additionally, the lawsuit claims that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has not met basic sanitary standards that could’ve prevented transmission behind bars, such as providing soap and hand sanitizer.

According to Bethany Carson, an immigration researcher and organizer for Austin-based nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, these claims were echoed by a group of about 60 migrants who protested at the South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall last week. According to ICE, the protest led guards to use pepper spray when protesters failed to comply with orders. Carson said protestors were calling for their release due to fears of contracting the virus in detention. 

“ICE identified approximately nine detainees as instigators that incited this disturbance,” ICE said in a statement. “All nine are now in restricted housing pending disciplinary charges due to security violations.”

Carson said detainees at the Pearsall complex—which houses 1,551 people—have also been participating in a hunger strike. An ICE spokesperson confirmed that at least four detainees in Pearsall are refusing to eat.

Dr. Rohini Haar, a medical expert with Physicians for Human Rights, said that using pepper spray in an enclosed environment is risky—people cannot disperse and are exposed to it for a longer period of time, and removal of such chemicals from the body requires immediate access to large amounts of soap and water. Long-term exposure to pepper spray can cause corneal ulcers and difficulty breathing, Haar said.

“If there is a riot going on and people are killing each other, it’s not the worst option,” she said. “But if the officers are in control and it’s unarmed civilians, is there nothing else you can do?”

Hunger strikes are one of only a few ways inmates can protest, Haar said, but it has dangerous effects—from dehydration to organ failure, strokes, and death.

Carson said Grassroots Leadership has also received reports of other protests at the detention facility in Pearsall, including one in a dorm that led staff to fire rubber bullets at the detainees. She said multiple detainees, including one in direct communication with kitchen staff, also confirmed to the organization that they were being fed only bread while other food was thrown out. ICE denied these claims, calling the allegations “unfounded and baseless.”

In a letter to ICE this week, U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett wrote that his office has received reports of detainees fed only bread, janitorial staff failing to show up for work, a failure to isolate detainees with COVID-19 symptoms, lack of medical care and testing for those with symptoms, and no preventive changes to dormitory arrangements. 

According to ICE, no cases of COVID-19 among detainees have been confirmed in Texas immigration detention facilities, and the agency’s testing complies with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Meanwhile, deportation flights continue. Last week, a flight from El Paso arrived in Guatemala with two people who, according to a Guatemalan government press release, “had an unusually high fever, so the necessary precautions were taken to rule out COVID-19.”

The press release also states that the Guatemalan consulate in Del Rio has stayed in contact with the two migrants, who had not previously reported symptoms. 

The Guatemalan Consul in Del Rio, Tekandi Paniagua, said his office understands the concerns that migrants might have in detention, but wants to avoid causing more panic. He said he isn’t aware of any detainees presenting symptoms. However, he said the risk continues and each government is taking steps to ensure the virus doesn’t spread any further.

Find all of our coronavirus coverage here.

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