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COVID-19 in US Migrant Detention Sites 'Just a Matter of Time'


FILE - In this July 12, 2019, photo, men stand in a U.S. Immigration and Border Enforcement detention center in McAllen, Texas.

At a time when people around the world are being told to keep a distance from one another to prevent coronavirus transmission, thousands of undocumented immigrants in U.S. detention facilities have no choice but to share often-cramped quarters where no physical distancing is possible.

A spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) told VOA that, as of this past week, there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 among detainees in ICE custody.

The agency did not disclose whether it has coronavirus testing kits at detention facilities, nor whether any detainees have, in fact, been tested. In a statement, ICE said it is following guidelines set by the U.S. Center for Disease Control to screen and isolate any detainee who shows symptoms consistent with COVID-19.

"ICE 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,” ICE spokeswoman Jenny Burke wrote in an email to VOA.

Immigration advocates are not satisfied, saying an outbreak of COVID-19 would be disastrous in a crowded detention facility.

"The agency is by no means equipped to manage the real risk of rapid spread of COVID-19 in immigration detention," said Rebekah Entralgo, spokeswoman for California-based Freedom for Immigrants. "ICE has proven time and time again that they are ill-equipped to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, as illustrated over the summer when over 900 immigrants in detention contracted chicken pox and mumps."

FILE - Medical facilities are seen at the Tornillo facility, a shelter for children of detained migrants, in Tornillo, Texas, in this undated handout photo provided by the US Department of Health and Human Services.
FILE - Medical facilities are seen at the Tornillo facility, a shelter for children of detained migrants, in Tornillo, Texas, in this undated handout photo provided by the US Department of Health and Human Services.

In 2019, ICE confirmed about 900 cases of mumps among adult migrants being held in 57 different facilities between September 2018 and August 2019. Almost 400 of the cases were reported in Texas.

Immigrant rights groups say, with COVID-19 cases multiplying in the United States, undocumented immigrants are at risk of catching the coronavirus from any infected ICE personnel. As with prisons and jails, detention facilities are especially vulnerable to the rapid spread of pathogens.

"At this point, as far as we can tell, there hasn't been any cases so far in immigration detention - but I honestly think it's just a matter of time before we start hearing about cases," Physicians for Human Rights senior medical adviser Ranit Mishori told VOA. "There's no testing. And at the national level, there is an issue with the availability of testing kits."

ICE maintains it is prepared and that 16 of 20 detention facilities are equipped with airborne infection isolation rooms, or AIIRs.

"IHSC plans to house detainees with epidemiologic risk for COVID-19 and who present with fever and/or symptoms or respiratory illness in AIIRs,” Burke wrote.

Meanwhile, some U.S. lawmakers are weighing in.

House Democrats have asked the Department of Homeland Security to provide its contingency plans in the event of a possible coronavirus outbreak in migrant detention facilities.

In a letter, Representatives Carolyn Maloney of New York and Jamie Raskin of Maryland said DHS detention facilities “may be especially vulnerable to the spread of coronavirus because of the administration’s excessive use of detention.”

They added, “The Department of Homeland Security has a well-documented history of failing to prevent the spread of disease among vulnerable populations in detention facilities."

ICE insists it will take steps as needed to protect those in its custody. On Friday, the agency announced it is suspending "social visitation" at all of its detention facilities to prevent transmission of coronavirus. Visits by legal counsel will still be allowed.

"Consistent with federal partners, ICE is taking important steps to further safeguard those in our care. As a precautionary measure, we are temporarily suspending social visitation in all detention facilities,” ICE said in a statement.