‘Extraordinary times’: Advocates call for closure of immigrant detention centers for coronavirus

Berks County Residential Center. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

Berks County Residential Center. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

Much of the U.S. federal immigration system has ground to a halt to try to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Borders are hardening, immigration court hearings are being postponed, and immigration arrests are slowing down all due to the threat of COVID-19. Detention centers, however, continue to operate with modifications.

Immigration rights advocates in Pennsylvania and New Jersey are calling for those facilities to be closed as well — noting they house people for civil, not criminal, charges.

“Rightfully, the state has shut down the schools, has shut down nonessential businesses, [has] shut down the capitol,” said Jasmine Rivera, referring to the Berks Family Residential Center, in Leesport, Pennsylvania. “There is absolutely no reason they should not shut down the prison.”

The 96-bed facility is one of three family immigrant detention centers in the U.S., and houses children and their relatives. Rivera is a coordinator of the Shut Down Berks Coalition, and has asked Governor Tom Wolf to issue an emergency removal order to have all of the detainees released.

Similar advocacy is happening in New Jersey.

“We’re in this vortex of coronavirus. We’re all worried about the confined conditions in the detention center,” said Deya Aldana, immigration lead for Make the Road NJ. That group is “demanding the immediate release of all detained immigrants currently in ICE custody and an end to all ICE raids and operations in New Jersey.”

In response to a global pandemic, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued guidance saying it is following “a pandemic workforce protection plan.”

Family and friends may no longer visit, and “comprehensive protocols are in place for the protection of staff and patients, including the appropriate use of personal protective equipment (PPE), in accordance with CDC guidance,” according to the agency. Detainees with coronavirus symptoms, such as fever and respiratory issues, are isolated.

In response to calls to close the Berks County facility due to pandemic, state spokesperson Erin James said, “The Department of Human Services (DHS) is working with all of our licensed providers around Pennsylvania to adjust operations due to COVID-19.” In addition to this center, the federal government contracts with local authorities to house immigration detainees at Clinton County Correctional Facility, Pike County Correctional Facility, and York County Prison.

Those measures are not enough to quell concerns about adequate medical care and the close quarters inside. Since April 10, 2018, 22 people have died in ICE custody nationally, including the most recent incident, which occurred this week in Texas. The Berks Family Residential Center has also been plagued by accusations that medical issues are not handled promptly, which ICE has refuted.

“Under normal circumstances, ICE has quite a mixed record on detainee health issues,” said Pennsylvania-based immigration attorney Brennan Gian-Grasso. “And because you have an outbreak where we’re still grasping the implications for public health outside…all my clients are at risk.”

In New Jersey, cases of coronavirus have already entered the immigration detention system. A guard at the Bergen County Jail has tested positive, according to NorthJersey.com. That facility holds both U.S. citizens accused of criminal offenses, and immigrants accused of breaking civil immigration law.

In Newark, at least 10 detainees have launched a hunger strike over fears that coronavirus could sweep through the facility. They ask to be released — or deported — so they do not get sick and potentially die in detention, reports WNYC/Gothamist.

“Folks are basically saying, ‘If this is the way I’m going to die, I’d rather be with my family,’” Aldana said.

An ICE prosecutor who had been appearing in Newark’s immigration court before many hearings were postponed has also tested positive, according to an email sent to the New Jersey Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association by former chair Lawrence K. LeRoy.

As a result, one of the judges there has also self-quarantined.

In a rare point of agreement between immigration prosecutors, defense attorneys and immigration judges, the unions for all three groups are calling for the closure of every immigration court, according to a letter dated March 15.

“These are extraordinary times,” it reads. “Respondents who are in detained settings are in a particularly vulnerable situation that warrants specialized considerations.”

While the U.S. Department of Justice has stopped many immigration court proceedings this week, those inside ICE detention centers are still happening.

The groups continue urging the Justice Department to close all of the courts, according to Natalie Richman, the Philadelphia immigration lawyer’s association liaison with that department.

As coronavirus spreads through the United States, some in harder-hit locations are taking even stronger measures. In Seattle, advocacy organizations including the ACLU sued in federal court, hoping to force the release of detainees in ICE custody.

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