Don’t Let Trump Make Immigrants Victims of COVID-19

(Mar. 27) Last October, Alfredo Espinoza was working at a restaurant in Spokane, Washington, when he was picked up by Border Patrol agents who had been tipped off that an undocumented worker was there.

Being put in the Northwest Detention Center in nearby Tacoma made Espinoza, who suffered a heart attack in January, fear for his life. He faced the very real possibility that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 could sweep through the facility, which has about 840 detainees.

Only recently did the forty-one-year-old Espinoza get relief. On March 16, he and eight other detainees––all with underlying illnesses––filed a federal lawsuit demanding release. Nine days later, Espinoza and another plaintiff were suddenly released. 

“They should be releasing people, and not just because they’re staring down a lawsuit,” says Matt Adams, who as legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project is one of the lawyers in this case. 

Health care experts and human rights advocates say the health of about 38,000 immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement demands the immediate release of detainees in the COVID-19 crisis.

But that is not happening, even after ICE officials admitted on March 24 that a thirty-one-year-old Mexican national in ICE custody at the Bergen County Jail in New Jersey had tested positive for the coronavirus, putting an end to dubious claims to the contrary by the Trump Administration. 

“Today, ICE made public what is supposedly ‘the first’ case of COVID-19 among the nearly 40,000 people in its custody across this country,” says the statement issued that day by Laura Rivera, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative. 

“We know there are many more. And this agency’s attempt to conceal the reality of growing COVID-19 transmission inside detention centers is endangering thousands of precious human lives.”

(Update: On March 28, a federal judge in California gave the administration until April 10 to show why it should not be ordered to make “continuous efforts to release” immigrant children in detention. By the latest count, 3,359 children were in ICE family facilities and 3,622 children in shelters licensed by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. The judge’s ruling came after four minors in a shelter in New York tested positive, and at least one more child in ICE custody is in quarantine awaiting test results. The judge found that ICE’s following of CDC’s guidelines for protecting children from COVID-19 “appears deficient.”)

The COVID-19 crisis has made the public rethink its ways in many respects, with some local jails beginning to release non-violent offenders.

Even Trump said at his March 22 COVID-19 press briefing that release of federal, elderly nonviolent criminals was being considered.

But ICE, which oversees a sprawling network of detention centers, seems wedded to keeping its population detained. 

This population, after all, feeds Trump’s deportation machine, but at a potentially deadly cost.

Alarmed by the threat COVID-19 poses to this population, 763 organizations—including many immigrant rights’ groups—have called for the release of all ICE detainees.

“Jails, prisons, and detention centers are sites where people are acutely vulnerable to health complications and the impact of outbreaks,” the groups say in a March 19 letter to acting ICE Director Matthew Albence.

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James Goodman