U.S. officials confirmed Friday that three unaccompanied migrant children in federal custody in New York have tested positive for COVID-19, bringing to eight the number of confirmed coronavirus cases spanning U.S. facilities holding immigrants.
In addition to the three children, two adult detainees in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have tested positive for COVID-19, as have three ICE employees assigned to three separate detention facilities.
Officials with the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) — an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that houses migrant minors — did not release the children's ages or nationalities. In a statement, ORR said it was working with local health authorities in New York "to collect information and determine next steps."
ICE, meanwhile, reported that two immigrants detained at separate facilities in New Jersey had tested positive for COVID-19, as have staffers at ICE facilities in New Jersey, Texas and Colorado.
VOA on Thursday spoke with two immigrants held at ICE's Elizabeth, New Jersey, contract detention facility where a staffer tested positive. Both expressed fears of getting sick.
"We have no protection. We don't have masks, no gloves," a detainee who identified himself as Nicolas said. "I'm scared that if I die here, my family won't even know what happened to me."
Nicolas, who is from Mexico, said he's been held at the Elizabeth facility since last November, adding that he heard about COVID-19 from attorneys, family, and through limited access to the news media.
A Honduran asylum-seeker who declined to identify himself told VOA, "We've been here just waiting for any news [about COVID-19]. They [detention guards] don't give information. It is like nothing is going on."
U.S. officials stress that steps have been taken to keep the immigrant detainee population healthy.
In statements to VOA, ICE has said it is following guidelines set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to screen and isolate any detainee who shows symptoms consistent with COVID-19.
The agency says it is "actively working with state and local health partners to determine if any detainee requires additional testing or monitoring to combat the spread of the virus."
In a statement last week, ICE said its "highest priorities are to promote lifesaving and public safety activities."
ORR, meanwhile, announced it is no longer placing unaccompanied migrant children in California, New York or Washington — three states hit hard by the coronavirus. The agency also said it is prioritizing local placement of migrant children to reduce the need for air travel.
Lawsuit against ICE
For weeks, human rights advocates have urged the release of people from immigration detention facilities to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
In Pennsylvania, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against ICE on behalf of 13 detainees.
In a press release, ACLU's Pennsylvania director, Reggie Shuford, said, "Social distancing is impossible in immigration detention. People in these facilities are housed in close proximity to each other with nowhere to go. Once the virus enters the jail, the staff and everyone detained there are at risk of a rapidly spreading disease."