Migrant advocacy groups call on ICE to release detainees in South Texas to prevent COVID-19

Coronavirus

Hunger strike by migrants at Port Isabel Detention Facility protesting conditions

This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the virus that causes COVID-19. The sample was isolated from a patient in the U.S. (NIAID-RML via AP)

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Several South Texas immigrant advocacy groups are calling on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to immediately release all detained migrants in the Rio Grande Valley to limit their risk to the coronavirus.

In a letter sent Monday to ICE Field Office Director Daniel Bible in San Antonio, four nonprofit groups from the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas “urge ICE to use its discretion to order the immediate release of all immigrants detained in the Rio Grande Valley to their families and communities.”

The letter was sent by the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network; La Unión Del Pueblo Entero (LUPE); Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley, and National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice. It says “given ICE’s history of addressing disease outbreaks in its detention facilities, and the lack of clear planning to address COVID-19, we fear for the health and well-being of individuals in detention.”

The letter also calls on ICE to:

● Suspend all detainee transfers within Rio Grande Valley.
● Provide free hygiene supplies for migrants.
● Screen and test all detainees in ICE custody.
● Off-site quarantining and treatment of detainees who test positive.
● Free phone calls by migrants to their families at this time.

The letter was sent after growing reports of COVID-19 cases by migrants in ICE care and that detainees’ lives are being put at risk held in close quarters where social distancing is not practiced. The first case of a migrant testing positive for COVID-19 was reported on Tuesday in Hackensack, New Jersey. That day, an ICE guard in Conroe, Texas, also tested positive for the deadly novel virus, officials said.

On Thursday, the Office of Refugee Resettlement announced that three immigrant children in U.S. government custody at a New York facility had tested positive for the coronavirus. Five staff members and a contractor at three separate facilities in New York also recently tested positive for the virus, as well as a foster parent in Washington state, the office said in a statement.

Three weeks ago, advocacy groups in Washington state issued a similar plea to ICE officials there as COVID-19 was beginning to rapidly infect that community.

In the span of a week, South Texas went from a handful of COVID-19 cases to over 80 cases on Monday morning reported from Webb County to Cameron County on the Gulf. Migrant advocates say they fear that soon the transmission rate will skyrocket among the 2,000 migrants held in the detention facilities at the Port Isabel Service Processing Center in Cameron County, and the El Valle Detention Facility in Raymondville, in Willacy County, 60 miles to the north.

“Public health agencies around the world are sounding the alarm about COVID-19’s impact as the number of cases in the country rises. Those detained in close quarters are particularly susceptible to contracting and rapidly spreading this highly contagious virus. We know from experience that medical care at ICE facilities in the Rio Grande Valley is inadequate and that proper measures have not been taken to ensure the safety of people detained and facility staff at the Port Isabel Service Processing Center and the El Valle Detention Facility during this outbreak,” the letter charges.

“Reports of insufficient or non-existent hygienic materials paired with national infection rates threaten the people within these facilities, including staff. All are at high risk for contracting and rapidly spreading this virus within already under-resourced communities of the RGV if no action is taken,” a press release Monday afternoon by the RGV Network said.

The letter to ICE officials said four people at the Port Isabel detention facility have been on a hunger strike to protest the living conditions. However, ICE officials told Border Report on Monday after that there currently is no hunger strike at the facility.

The letter sent to ICE claims the Port Isabel detainees “have not been provided sanitizer and hygiene products or even been given information about the virus.”

The agency came under backlash last week from Congress for its request of 45,000 N-95 medical masks and on Thursday withdrew its request.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.

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