The two Democrats argued that the legislation ― which stands a slim chance of success given President Donald Trump’s hard-line immigration policies ― is necessary to save lives during the COVID-19 outbreak.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement centers are “tinderboxes” for the disease’s spread, since people must sleep, shower and eat in cramped quarters without access to proper medical care or protective supplies, such as soap and gloves, the lawmakers said.
“This is a public health threat and an urgency that we are addressing with this bill,” Booker said during a video press conference. “This is indeed a matter of life or death.”
More than 70 immigrants in ICE detention have tested positive for COVID-19, and that number is expected to increase. Immigrant detention centers, like prisons and jails, are hotbeds for coronavirus outbreaks, since the people inside cannot practice social distancing or wash their hands enough to stop the virus’ spread. COVID-19 has already killed more than 50 staff members and incarcerated people in correctional facilities.
The new bill from Booker and Jayapal, the Federal Immigrant Release for Safety and Security Together Act, would require ICE to release detained immigrants who don’t pose any public safety risk. Those over 50 or under 21, and anyone with health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus, would be the first to be released. Jayapal estimated that the “majority” of the roughly 34,000 detained immigrants would be let out under the bill’s criteria, since most have not been charged with violent crimes.
The FIRST Act would also force every detention center to provide immigrants with access to soap and other hygiene products, as well as free phone calls and videoconferencing to their family and their lawyers. Lastly, it would limit ICE raids of immigrant communities and places such as hospitals during the outbreak so undocumented people can access lifesaving care.
“The FIRST Act is not rocket science,” Jayapal said. “It just asks us for measures of the most basic humanity for immigrants.”
A spokesperson for ICE told HuffPost that the agency 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,” the spokesperson said. “Decisions to release individuals in ICE custody occur every day on a case-by-case basis.”
The situation within ICE detention is a “ticking time bomb” for a COVID-19 outbreak, according to Dr. Ranit Mishori, a senior medical adviser at the nonprofit group Physicians for Human Rights.
“The worst-case scenario is the coronavirus spreads like wildfires in detention facilities and people die inside,” Mishori said, adding that many detention facilities are in remote areas where hospitals are already overwhelmed. “That hospital is going to crumble, and people will die.”
The subpar medical care in ICE detention centers is a well-documented issue. Since October, 10 immigrants have died in government custody, and last year, so did six immigrant children, who in many cases had treatable illnesses such as the flu. Immigrants with brain tumors and cancer have not received adequate treatment at these facilities, as HuffPost has previously reported, and nurses often prescribe Tylenol for serious conditions rather than sending people to hospitals.
Victor Manuel Fonseca, a 39-year-old immigrant from Venezuela detained at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, says he has diabetes, arthritis and high cholesterol, but hasn’t been able to obtain the medications he needs to keep those conditions under control.
“There are older people here with health conditions. Some are older than 50 or 60 years old,” he told HuffPost. “There’s someone here from Vietnam with coronavirus symptoms. My question is, will they only take charge of the situation once people die?”
Fonseca said NWDC staff have only provided him and other detainees with towels and water to keep their living spaces clean. “We don’t have bleach or anything chemical to use as a disinfectant,” he said. “I think it’s a bit difficult to handle this situation with just a towel and water.”
Multiple lawsuits to free detained immigrants have focused on the unhygienic conditions in detention centers. These facilities are set up like prisons or jails, with groups of people sharing a cell with a sink and shower, or sleeping in dorms with bunks that are less than two feet apart. In one ACLU lawsuit focused on three Pennsylvania-based jails, immigrants said they had to buy their own soap, and that the staff, including doctors and nurses, did not wear protective gloves.
Natalia, a mother of three from Brazil whose husband was detained at Pike County Correctional Facility in Pennsylvania, told HuffPost he shared a cell with three other people and had communal meals with 40 to 50 other detainees, but they hadn’t received any face masks or protection for the coronavirus.
“He sees the news on TV, but among themselves, no, nobody communicates anything about it,” Natalia said of the information detainees had received about the pandemic. “He’s very worried, and also worried about us.”
Some states, such as California and Kentucky, have released groups of people from prisons and jails to try and ease the public health crisis. But there’s been much less political will to let out detained immigrants. Yet most people inside ICE detention centers have no criminal record and are simply awaiting their immigration hearings. They could easily be released to family members or housing run by immigrant rights organizations, and studies suggest they would still show up for their court dates.
Immigrants in facilities across the U.S. have protested and gone on hunger strikes to demand better protections from COVID-19. Two men in an Alabama facility even threatened suicide in the belief that new detainees weren’t being screened for the virus. But apart from a few successful lawsuits, there have been no mass releases.
Booker and Jayapal are hoping their bill would force ICE to finally take action. They will either try and pass the legislation on its own or include it in the government’s next coronavirus relief package.
The two lawmakers did not have a firm timeline for how quickly this could happen, but they said the bill already has 22 co-sponsors in the House, and it’s been endorsed by 60 advocacy groups.
Booker said the government should not abandon the values of universal human rights during the pandemic, and that it needs to ensure all groups are protected.
“It’s a moral issue. We cannot necessarily put people at grave risk,” he said. “We must make sure immigration policies affirm the dignity and well-being of all people in a crisis.”
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