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El Paso’s Bishop Seitz, migrant advocates call for ICE to release nonviolent detainees during COVID-19 outbreak

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El Paso’s Catholic bishop and immigrant advocates are calling on Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release nonviolent detainees during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Faith and reason tell us that the right thing to do right now is to protect each other by taking steps toward social distancing. The federal government has already recognized that this is very nearly impossible in facilities like prisons and detention centers,” Bishop Mark Seitz said at a news conference Tuesday. “Therefore, I’m calling on our local U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency to urgently and quickly prioritize the release of nonviolent migrants from the immigration detention facilities in our community. This will protect the health of migrants, our immigration enforcement personnel and our entire El Paso community.”

Leaders from Annunciation House, Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services and other nonprofits that help migrants joined in the news conference to plead with ICE to release most of its detainees, who are being held for a civil process to determine whether they can stay in the United States.

Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center provided this video of a detainee talking about conditions at ICE’s Otero County Processing Center in southern New Mexico.

Buzzfeed reported on Tuesday that ICE had identified 600 detainees for possible release because they have been deemed “vulnerable” to the coronavirus, An ICE spokesperson told El Paso Matters that the agency was are reviewing detention status on a case-by-case basis.

“Due to the unprecedented nature of COVID-19, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is reviewing cases of individuals in detention who may be vulnerable to the virus.  Utilizing CDC guidance along with the advice of medical professionals, ICE may place individuals in a number of alternatives to detention options.  Decisions to release individuals in ICE custody occur every day on a case-by-case basis,” the spokesperson said.

The agency has said 19 detainees have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday. None were in the El Paso area. 

El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego, state Sen. José Rodríguez, County Commissioner David Stout and city Rep. Alexsandra Annello joined in Tuesday’s news conference to call for widespread ICE release of detainees during the pandemic. U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar had earlier called for ICE to take stronger measures to protect detainees, including releasing those who pose no risk to the public.

Most detainees have no U.S. criminal convictions

More than two-thirds of people detained at ICE facilities in the El Paso region had no U.S. criminal conviction, according to data collected by the Transactional Resource Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. The data is for July 2019, the most recent local data available.

Among El Paso area detainees with U.S. convictions, three-fourths had been convicted only of immigration violations of illegal entry or re-entry, according to the TRAC data. 

Less than 9 percent of El Paso-area ICE detainees had been convicted of any crime other than an immigration offense, according to the data. Only 3 percent of detainees in the region had been convicted of what ICE labels a serious offense.

Fears of a detainee’s wife

Ydelbis Arevalo Portuondo  said she is worried about her husband, Juan Diaz Rodriguez, who is being held at ICE’s Otero County Processing Center in southern New Mexico. He is 56 and has diabetes, which puts him at increased risk of serious complications if he contracts COVID-19.

During a phone call a few days ago she said her husband told her, “‘I let you down. I don’t think I’m going to be able to make it to be with you. I feel like they will be taking me out of here in a black (body) bag,’ I started to cry,” she said in an interview on Monday.

The couple left Cuba in May 2019 to seek asylum in the United States and crossed into El Paso on Aug. 1, she said. Arevalo is with her husband’s family in Florida awaiting the outcome of their immigration case.

“I think I’m going to lose my husband. He’s the only family I have in this country. He’s all I have,” she said.

Late Tuesday afternoon, Arevalo got word that her husband was being released from the Otero detention facility.

“Thank you blessed Jesus!” she said. 

Diaz had been in ICE custody for five months. Attorney Miriam Cruz with Diocesan Migrant and Refugee services in El Paso had been fighting for Diaz’s release because of his serious health problems even before COVID-19 became a deadly threat. 

“It’s just a lot of weight off my shoulders, a lot. Especially because I was able to help a couple. It’s just a great relief to know that they will soon be in each others arms,” Cruz said.

El Paso-area migrant advocates said released detainees could first go to Annunciation House, then travel to be with family elsewhere in the United States and self-quarantine.

How ICE handles detainees amid COVID-19

ICE officials have said they use a process called “cohorting” to segregate detainees who may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.  Detainees who become seriously ill are taken to hospitals for treatment.

“Detainees who meet CDC criteria for epidemiologic risk of exposure to COVID-19 are housed separately from the general population. ICE places detainees with fever and/or respiratory symptoms in a single medical housing room, or in a medical airborne infection isolation room specifically designed to contain biological agents, such as COVID-19,” the agency said on its website.

Migrant advocates say that isn’t enough to keep detainees safe. Ranit Mishori, senior medical advisor for Physician for Human Rights, called the dormitory-style setting in ICE detention facilities “a ticking time bomb” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The only defenses that we have against coronavirus — social distancing, meticulous hygiene practices, self- quarantine — are not possible in immigration detention centers. There is still time to do the right thing. But the window is closing rapidly,” Mishori said.

El Paso Matters multimedia editor Angela Kocherga contributed to this story.

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Robert Moore

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986. His work has received a number of top journalism honors including the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, Pulitzer Prize finalist and the Benjamin C. Bradlee Editor of the Year Award. Moore’s work has appeared in the Washington Post, Texas Monthly, ProPublica, National Public Radio, The Guardian and other publications. He has been featured as an expert on border issues by CNN, MSNBC, BBC, CBC and PBS.

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