WASHINGTON - The spread of COVID-19 has triggered changes to U.S. immigration policies, enforcement and litigation across the country as advocates call for the release of migrant detainees at risk from the coronavirus.
It has also affected dozens of immigrant children in U.S. custody living in a Chicago-based Heartland Alliance shelter, which reportedly has the largest outbreak of the virus in any shelter for immigrant youth.
Reports from an immigrant youth shelter in Chicago, said at least 37 children and two staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days.
ProPublica reported Monday that an email sent to staff at Heartland Human Care Services, an umbrella nonprofit organization that oversees the shelter program for unaccompanied minors, said the first positive test results were reported at its Bronzeville shelter and other cases were confirmed over the weekend.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency charged with the care of unaccompanied immigrant children, said 21 children in Illinois and Texas shelters have tested positive for COVID-19. Officials did not explain why their numbers were different from Heartland Human Care Services.
Due to concerns over COVID-19, federal officials stopped placing migrant youth in New York and Washington state shelters.
Since March, Heartland Human Care Services stopped taking new children under its care.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has put out guidelines covering visa extensions in the United States.
USCIS says it will provide special consideration or expedited processing on a case-by-case basis for people who need to file applications but are facing problems because of COVID-19.
The guidelines say, “Generally, nonimmigrants must depart the United States before their authorized period of admission expires.However, we recognize that nonimmigrants may unexpectedly remain in the United States beyond their authorized period of stay due to COVID-19.”
USCIS officials said options are available for nonimmigrants seeking to avoid falling out of status. The agency also said if applicants filed in a “timely manner,” they generally do not accrue unlawful presence in the country.
The agency will consider delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic when deciding whether to excuse those delays in filing documents.
Immigrants in detention facilities
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and its state affiliates have filed more than 15 legal actions related to detention centers, prisons and jails.
The 15 lawsuits demand that U.S. immigration officials release clients at high risk.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials have told VOA in recent weeks the agency 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.
On Wednesday, ICE updated its online COVID-19 guidance to show that 89 immigrants in ICE custody have tested positive for coronavirus. The number of ICE detention center employees who have tested positive has increased to 21.
When asked how many people have been tested inside immigrant detention centers, an ICE spokesperson said in an email to VOA that “we don’t have this data to provide. We are doing testing in line with CDC guidelines.”