WASHINGTON (AP) — Pressure was mounting Wednesday on the Trump administration to release people from immigration prisons where at least one detainee has tested positive for Covid-19 and advocates fear tight quarters and overall conditions could cause rapid spread of the virus.
The United States is holding at least 37,000 people in immigration prisons. Detainees and advocates say many are vulnerable because of age and pre-existing medical conditions, and because they are often held in open rooms, beds 3 feet apart, and without masks or other protections.
“It’s impossible to stay calm,” said Marco Battistotti, an Italian who is among 170 people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Bristol County jail in Massachusetts. “People are panicking. People are in fear.”
Battistotti, 54, was among about 100 detainees at the county jail near Cape Cod who signed a letter released by a local immigration attorney detailing conditions inside. They asked to be released to await decisions on their immigration cases.
“I don’t want to die in an ICE jail,” he said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. “Why can’t I fight my case on the outside?”
The agency, which reported the positive test of a 31-year-old man from Mexico held in Bergen County, New Jersey on Tuesday, has announced steps to protect detainees and staff from the virus, but has not said whether it plans to review cases for possible release because of the pandemic. It did not respond to a request to comment on the complaints about conditions from the detainees and their advocates.
The administration has tried to balance its hard line on immigration and its response to the pandemic, with ICE announcing that it would “temporarily adjust” operations to focus on arresting people who pose a risk to public safety or are subject to mandatory detention because of a criminal record.
Mexican human rights workers, meanwhile, have protested that the United States is “returning to Mexico” thousands of people who have not been tests for Covid-19.
Human rights advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, filed lawsuits in California, Maryland, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, seeking court orders for the immediate release of people in immigration detention, especially those at risk because of their age or medical conditions.
Advocates have also asked a court in Los Angeles to order the Office of Refugee Resettlement to release to eligible sponsors around 1,200 immigrant children who were arrested without parents or legal guardians and have been held in government-contracted shelters for more than 30 days. They said two staff members at two such jails in New York have tested positive for Covid-19.
It’s unclear how many immigration detainees overall are at high risk, but one California lawsuit had 13 plaintiffs, all older than 55.
A federal judge in Boston on Wednesday ordered the release of a 36-year-old man from the Dominican Republic who was in a local jail south of the city where an employee tested positive. The ACLU sued for the release of two others held there.
A Ninth Circuit panel in San Francisco on Monday, citing the “rapidly escalating public health crisis,” ordered the immediate release of a 37-year-old woman who is fighting deportation to Mexico.
Her attorney, Max Carter-Oberstone, said the government told him it would not oppose the decision but she had not been released as of early Wednesday. The court took the action on its own initiative in a rare move on behalf of a woman who said she has been threatened with death by members of a Mexican drug cartel.
“It wasn’t something we asked for or were expecting,” Carter-Oberstone said. “The court is clearly reacting to the greater public health crisis that we’re in right now and re-evaluating how it’s going to dispose of its immigration cases in light of that crisis that we’re all experiencing.”
The situation in immigration detention, which include jails run by local jurisdictions and private contractors, is similar to that facing prisons, with staff also at risk from a virus that already has infected at least 55,000 people and killed more than, 1,000 in the United States.
One difference is that more than half of ICE detainees have no criminal charges or conviction and are held only for immigration reasons. Under previous administrations, many would have been released on bond as they pursued their cases.
ICE has reported one positive test of an employee at a jail in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and 18 confirmed cases among staff not involved in detention. The Nation magazine, however, citing a leaked document, reported that ICE has found more than three dozen cases ov Covid-19 in its prisons. A contractor reported a positive case of a staff member at a facility in Harris County, Texas, home of Houston. The agency says it is screening new detainees and isolating detainees who show symptoms of Covid-19.
Detainees say those measures won’t do much, with people staying in dorm-like bays with no social distancing possible or in smaller rooms that they sometimes have to clean themselves, with insufficient cleaning supplies.
Francisca Morales Diaz, a 45-year-old from Mexico who was released Friday from an ICE jail in Louisiana, said she and others were issued soap and toilet paper for once a week and they would run out. When they complained, she says they were told there were shortages on the outside as well.
“There isn’t enough medicine. It’s not well-maintained,” Morales said. She fears that “at any moment, they’re going to come and take me back there.”
Pepper spray was used Tuesday by guards inside the Pine Prairie jail in Louisiana against detainees who say they were demanding the facility do more to protect them from the virus, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said seven people were sprayed after they refused to follow guards’ orders.
Ira Alkalay, an attorney representing some of the detainees at the jail near Cape Cod, said the detainees are responsible for cleaning their unit, which includes a dining area and bathrooms, but are not even given bleach. Some who signed the letter suffer from respiratory ailments such as tuberculosis, emphysema and asthma that put them at higher risk.
“These are not sanitary conditions at all,” Alkalay said. “If the virus is introduced, many people could get sick all at once. Hospitals in the area can become quickly overwhelmed.”
The office of Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, who has made headlines for offering to send the jail’s ICE detainees to help build Trump’s border wall, has said there are no confirmed or suspected cases of the virus at the jail.
As so often during the pandemic, the official claimed that opponents of Trump were using the disease for political reasons.
“We suspect these detainees are working with outside political activist groups to use the coronavirus crisis to advance their political agenda,” the sheriff’s spokesman, Jonathan Darling, said this week.
Eunice Cho, an ACLU lawyer, warned that if the virus spreads through a jail or prison the number of sick people who would require advanced care could overwhelm nearby hospitals. Many ICE jails are in rural areas with smaller hospitals.
“This is closely related to the public health of our entire community,” Cho said.
Courthouse News Service contributed to this report.