'Terrified of dying': Immigrants beg to be released from immigration detention as coronavirus spreads

Gretchen Romero says there's no conceivable way for her to protect herself from contracting coronavirus.

'Terrified of dying': Immigrants beg to be released from immigration detention as coronavirus spreads

Romero, 27, a Cuban migrant who's been held in custody for eight months since requesting asylum in the U.S., said there's no room inside her dormitory at the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center to walk, eat or sleep while practicing social distancing. She said guards come in and out of their dorm without wearing masks or gloves. More than 70 detainees in the dorm share five bars of soap, and she says no additional disinfectant or hand sanitizer has been provided at the facility where some detainees have already been isolated over fears of coronavirus.

Romero says it's been horrifying to see such indifference inside the facility near Baton Rouge while the world outside is quarantining, social distancing, sewing masks and sanitizing their surroundings every chance they get.

"It's like the world hasn’t changed and everything has stayed the same," inside the detention center, Romero said. "We are terrified of dying. If people who have the ability to go to the doctor are dying, what’s going to happen to us in here?"

Attorney General William Barr has ordered the release of some medically vulnerable inmates from federal prisons and sheriffs have released thousands of jail inmates to minimize the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks. Yet there has been no similar effort made by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is currently holding more than 34,000 detainees, the majority of which — 60 percent — have no criminal record and are only being detained over a civil immigration violation.

The agency has released 160 detainees in recent weeks, but that hasn't been nearly enough for detainees, politiciansdoctors and human rights groups who have been pleading with the Trump administration to, at the very least, release detainees with poor health conditions. With little response coming from ICE, the groups have filed a wave of lawsuits around the country that have resulted in judges ordering the release of dozens of more detainees from California to Massachusetts to New Jersey.

When U.S. District Judge John Jones ordered ICE to release 11 chronically-ill detainees from a Pennsylvania detention center last week, he wrote that he issued the order because he could not be party to the "unconscionable and barbaric" possibility of those detainees contracting coronavirus.

ICE facilities "are plainly not equipped to protect Petitioners from a potentially fatal exposure to COVID-19," wrote Jones, who ordered an additional 22 ICE detainees be freed on Tuesday. "If we are to remain the civilized society we hold ourselves out to be, it would be heartless and inhumane not to recognize Petitioners’ plight. And so we will act."

One of the biggest challenges facing detainees is that they simply don't know the magnitude of the spread of coronavirus inside ICE facilities.

The agency says 30 detainees and ICE personnel have tested positive for coronavirus in 16 different ICE facilities in 10 states as of Tuesday. But ICE officials have disclosed little information about its testing procedures — they will not say how many tests have been administered or what facilities are testing people, stating only that detention centers are following testing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That makes it impossible to know how rapidly the virus is spreading inside ICE detention centers. In one case, a federal lawsuit forced the government to acknowledge that it had not tested any ICE detainees inside the Howard County Detention Center in Jessup, Maryland, has no test kits at the facility, and has "no plans to conduct testing," according to a ruling issued by U.S. District Judge Theodore Chuang last week ordering ICE to begin testing at the detention center.

ICE data on coronavirus cases is also missing a large pool of people — the thousands of private contractors who work as wardens, administrators, guards, doctors, nurses, janitors and cooks inside ICE detention centers. ICE only owns and operates five of the more than 200 facilities that house ICE detainees around the country, the rest of the work being done by private prison companies and local jails.

That means ICE's total case count does not include two guards working at the Krome Service Processing Center outside of Miami, Florida, who tested positive for coronavirus this week. An ICE official confirmed their positive tests.

ICE's count is also missing two nurses and one guard who have died over the past week because of coronavirus complications at the Hudson County Correctional Center in Kearney, New Jersey, since they worked for the county or a private healthcare company working there under contract. The facility holds nearly 300 ICE detainees.

That lack of testing and transparency has prompted lawyers to file lawsuits to win the freedom of the most at-risk detainees, according to Eunice Cho, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU who is coordinating the more than a dozen lawsuits the organization has launched in recent weeks.

"We are fully aware of the magnitude of this problem and are deeply concerned about the health and welfare of all the detainees currently locked up in these facilities," Cho said.

Some lawsuits could lead to the release of thousands of unaccompanied minors in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services and adult migrants held by ICE. 

U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee in California is considering a request to fast-track the release of nearly 7,000 thousand unaccompanied minors after HHS said four children in its custody in New York tested positive for coronavirus, as well as eight staff, contractors or foster parents in New York, Washington and Texas.

And U.S. District Judge James Boasberg of Washington, D.C., is considering a request to release about 1,350 members of migrant families who are detained at three family detention centers in Pennsylvania and Texas.