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Commentary Coronavirus

Commentary: Continued ICE detention risks spread of COVID-19 in El Paso region

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By Margaret Brown Vega and Nathan Craig

The COVID-19 pandemic is a global health crisis. This week communities across the United States, to better ensure public health, continued to pressure local, state, and federal officials to release those held in ICE detention, jails and prisons.

As of March 28 a little over 35,000 people remain in ICE detention. No one in ICE detention is serving time for a criminal offense, and ICE has broad discretion to release those in its custody.

Reports from other parts of the country detailing COVID-19 infections indicate positive cases first arise among detention facility staff, and then spread to those detained. Despite this pattern emerging in places like New Jersey and California, ICE is not yet carrying out mass releases to stem the spread of COVID-19 in its network of more than 200 facilities.

ICE detainees speak out

At great personal risk of retaliation, more and more individuals in ICE custody are speaking out to expose the dangerous conditions in which they are being held. Persons held by ICE at the El Paso Service Processing Center are among those who desperately want their voices heard and are concerned about their safety.

Multiple reports from numerous individuals detained in EPSPC indicate inadequate or no access to soap, no access to hand sanitizer, no access to masks, and living quarters filled with people that make social distancing protocols mandated through executive order by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott impossible to practice.

Community spread increases danger

Within EPSPC, living spaces are only cleaned once a day. Vitally necessary hygiene supplies are not being provided to detained individuals, many of whom desperately want to take measures to avoid getting sick. Their fear comes not as much from each other, but from frequent contact with facility staff and guards. We are being told that guards are not systematically wearing masks and gloves. Some staff members have coughs and are not taking necessary precautions.

With community spread confirmed in El Paso, each time a detention center employee enters the facility, they elevate the risk of infecting those inside who are unable to mitigate their risk. From EPSPC, we are hearing frightened, desperate pleas for help from people afraid of dying of COVID-19 in detention.

The Otero County Processing Center is a privately run Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Chaparral, N.M. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

We do not know much about what is happening inside Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, New Mexico. The silence is a concern. We suspect the fears are the same.

With medical neglect a recurrent problem in ICE detention, and the leading cause of death among those incarcerated by ICE, those in detention are not given the tools or the space to protect themselves from COVID-19. ICE, who oversees the health of everyone in their custody, is not taking adequate and appropriate measures to protect those detained. In fact, they cannot— because a basic preventative measure, social distancing, is simply not possible in spaces that are designed to group people together in confinement.

A threat to El Paso health

To make matters worse, medical neglect is well-documented at EPSPC and OCPC, and neither facility is medically equipped to care for someone infected with COVID-19. This means that outbreaks will not be contained in the detention facilities.

Rather, critical medical cases from both of these facilities will be transferred to area hospitals, mostly to El Paso. By not taking the rational preventative measure now of releasing people, ICE is creating the conditions to overrun local medical facilities by exposing a vulnerable detained population to possible infection— a population that doesn’t need to be detained at all.

Our state and local officials have a say in how our communities respond to the spread of COVID-19. These officials must demand that in the interest of public health, on behalf of all of us, that those in held in area detention facilities be released before detention centers become hotspots of the virus.

What you can do

All ICE detention centers in the El Paso region and the neighboring state of New Mexico are under the jurisdiction of the El Paso ICE Field Office. We encourage people to contact the ICE Community Relations Director in El Paso and ask ICE to release everyone in its custody in coordination with local organizations.

Last Wednesday, advocates advised Rep. Veronica Escobar’s office of reports from those detained at El Paso. We understand Congresswoman Escobar is concerned about the situation. Her colleagues at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are as well, as they are also calling for ICE to release people to prevent outbreaks.

We urge you to call her office to let her know how much you support releasing individuals from local detention facilities. With the number of COVID-19 cases rising in El Paso (106 as of April 3) and in New Mexico (543 as of April 4), it is imperative that immediate action be taken to release people from detention in the next week or two, before the rate of infection in El Paso leads to a dire situation for all of us.

Margaret Brown Vega, Ph.D., is with Advocate Visitors with Immigrants in Detention (AVID), an entirely volunteer-run, abolitionist organization based in southern New Mexico and El Paso. AVID is part of the movement to end immigration detention. She also teaches anthropology at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.

Nathan Craig, Ph.D., volunteers with AVID and teaches anthropology at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.

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