Local immigration advocates concerned for high-risk population in detention

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WESLACO – Advocates in the Rio Grande Valley are asking Immigration and Customs Enforcement to consider releasing high-risk migrants from local detention centers due to COVID-19 concerns.

The coronavirus slipped past guards and bars at a New York detention facility last week. A Mexican man became the first person in ICE custody to test positive. Now, four detainees have tested positive for COVID-19 and five personnel in detention centers across the country, including a facility in Texas.

Migrants held at El Valle and Port Isabel are reaching out to advocates like Norma Herrera from the RGV Equal Voice Network.

"And, another man stressed they have families too that they want to go home to and keep safe from this pandemic. ‘Nosotros tambien somos seres humanos,’ he said. ‘We're also human beings.’ This man is so desperate to get home to his young daughter, he said he'd rather get deported than left to die at this detention center," said Herrera who works as a community organizer.

They sent a letter to ICE on Monday voicing the claims of a hunger strike at some dormitories. The detainees are protesting conditions and risks they face under confinement. According to ICE, there is "no one who has threatened to go on a hunger strike at the facility."

ICE's website states they are taking preventative measures for anyone going to a detention center. It encourages immigration attorneys to call in advance of their visit to the detention facility and inquire about their policies. Visitors will receive a verbal screening for symptoms. Immigration attorney Carlos Garcia confirmed they have additional requirements.

"Some of the gear they're requesting is not readily accessible. For instance, in Raymondville at the El Valle Detention Center, we called today [Monday], and they said that not only did you need a mask and gloves, you also needed to bring in your own goggles," Garcia said.

Attorneys can opt for non-contact visits like phone calls, but aside from concerns for due process and constitutional rights, Garcia says he fears for his clients' overall health.

"For instance, I have a 78-year-old lawful permanent resident who has been a resident of this country for 48 years who is detained there," Garcia explained. "Just because the government can legally hold my client doesn't mean that morally they should be holding this type of person, because he's at very high-risk."

Precautions do little to pacify the concerns raised by the RGV Equal Voice Network to ICE. Herrera said, "It's clear that ICE cannot guarantee the health and safety of the people in their custody, especially right now when public health officials are recommending social distancing. This isn't something that people in detention and confined spaces can do."

As of Tuesday, ICE had not responded to the letter sent to them by the local advocate organization. Relief may have to come from the courts as it did in Pennsylvania on Tuesday. A judge ruled to release ten migrants from detention due to their high-risk assessment.


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