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Advocates Worry Detained Immigrants Are At Risk For Coronavirus


Somebody reached out on social media this week with a question. What does coronavirus mean for immigrants being held in U.S. detention centers? Turns out, NPR's Joel Rose is on that story. He reports that immigrant advocates are suing for the release of those considered most vulnerable.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: In immigration detention, there's no such thing as social distancing. Detainees often live together in large rooms with rows of cots.

EUNICE CHO: It is a disaster that is waiting to happen.

ROSE: Eunice Cho is a lawyer with the ACLU. The group filed a lawsuit yesterday in Seattle seeking the release of some immigrants being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Tacoma, Wash.

CHO: These are not normal times, and ICE needs to take stock of that.

ROSE: With the coronavirus pandemic spreading, immigrant advocates say ICE should release many of the 37,000 immigrants currently in its detention centers, starting with detainees who have medical conditions that put them at high risk for severe complications from COVID-19 and then other detainees who've been accused of no crime other than civil immigration violations and who probably wouldn't have been held under previous administrations.

JOSIAH RICH: A lot of people think that, well, these are controlled, locked facilities and you just lock them up and seal them off and the virus isn't going to get in. Well, it's not that simple.

ROSE: Dr. Josiah Rich is a professor at Brown University who studies infectious disease in correctional facilities. It's not just the detainees who are at risk if there's an outbreak, he says. An influx of sick detainees could overwhelm local medical facilities.

RICH: So you'll have a whole group of people that are going to infect it because of rapid spread in that correctional or detention facility. And then all of a sudden, those people will get sick all at once.

ROSE: ICE says it is taking precautions to protect detainees. The agency has temporarily suspended social visits at all of its detention centers. And in a statement, the agency says there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 among detainees. But in New Jersey, one staffer at the Elizabeth Detention Center has voluntarily self-quarantined and is being tested for the disease. Anwen Hughes is an attorney at Human Rights First who represents immigrants being held in Elizabeth.

ANWEN HUGHES: There's the opposite of social distancing. It's like social piling on. So it would seem to be only a matter of time before the virus makes its way into these particular settings.

ROSE: Family members of detainees worry it already has. Maria (ph) is an asylum-seeker from Venezuela who lives in Georgia. She asked us not to use her last name because she's afraid of retaliation against her cousins. They fled Venezuela earlier this year, she says, also to seek asylum here and have been detained since August at the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center.

MARIA: There's so many people in just one room. They share a bathroom. They share everything. So everyone is at risk of getting it if there's just one person with it.

ROSE: The facility can hold up to a thousand immigrants, in a small town more than an hour's drive west of Baton Rouge with less than 2,000 residents and no hospital.

Joel Rose, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.