EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — El Paso state lawmakers support the release of detained non-violent migrants to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and a possible collapse of the local healthcare system.

In a letter addressed to the local heads of three federal immigration enforcement agencies, the legislators expressed concerns about reports of detainees and agents coming down with the disease and lack of information regarding the agencies’ health safety protocols.

“Due to the increased spread of COVID-19, we urge ICE and CBP to coordinate with local governments, public health agencies, hospitals and other area stakeholders to plan for both the release of non-violent detainees as well as protocols for spread of COVID-19 within your facilities,” says the letter signed by five state representatives and state Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, who shared it with the public.

Lawmaker calls for coronavirus testing, release of some ICE detainees after 4 test positive in El Paso

The lawmakers say they know of four U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents testing positive for the virus earlier this month, in addition to one employee and one detainee at the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, N.M., and five detainees at the El Paso Processing Center.

El Paso recorded 540 cases of COVID-19 as of April 20, 38 persons hospitalized and 13 on intensive care.

“Alarmingly, we have had significant double-digit increases in the past week, which suggests that the local rate of infection is increasing rapidly,” the letter said. “If these cases were to lead to an outbreak at Otero or the El Paso Processing Center or another facility where detainees are held, our local health care system would reach a breaking point within days.”

The lawmakers said El Paso-area nonprofits are ready to assist the migrants with relocation if the federal agencies release them.

The legislators also asked CBP, the Border Patrol and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for details about their COVID-19 protocols, which they say have not been shared.

“Legal representatives have shared testimonials from detainees who report a lack of personal protection equipment at any facility, no social distancing, unhygienic condition and that cases of COVID-19 among detainees and staff are not adequately investigated,” the letter says.

The letter was signed by state representatives Mary E. Gonzalez, Joseph E. Moody, Cesar J. Blanco, Lina Ortega and Art Fierro, all Democrats representing El Paso districts.

“As a matter of policy, CBP does not comment on legislative correspondence. CBP will respond directly to those making inquiry,” CBP said in a statement to Border Report.

ICE sent the following response to questions posed by Border Report:

  • How are infections reported?
  • ICE testing for COVID-19 complies with CDC guidance. ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC) reports positive cases to local health officials, and updates and shares its COVID-19 guidance with field units on a real-time basis. Subjects selected for testing follow CDC’s definition of a person under investigation.
  • How are people screened before transport?
  • Before transfer, detainees are screened for COVID-19, to include undergoing temperature checks, in accordance with CDC guidelines.
  • Is there social distancing at ICE facilities as recommended by the CDC?
  • In March, ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) convened a working group between medical professionals, disease control specialists, detention experts, and field operators to identify additional enhanced steps to minimize the spread of the virus. ICE has since evaluated its detained population based upon the CDC’s guidance for people who might be at higher risk for severe illness as a result of COVID-19 to determine whether continued detention was appropriate. Of this population, ICE has released nearly 700 individuals after evaluating their immigration history, criminal record, potential threat to public safety, flight risk, and national security concerns. This same methodology is currently being applied to other potentially vulnerable populations currently in custody and while making custody determinations for all new arrests. Additionally, ERO has limited the intake of new detainees being introduced into the ICE detention system. ICE’s detained population has dropped by more than 4,000 individuals since March 1, 2020 with a more than 60 percent decrease in book-ins when compared to this time last year.
  • Specifically, as of April 22, population at detention facilities in the ERO El Paso area of responsibility were below 70 percent of capacity allowing for social distancing.
  • Are detainees provided facial coverings as recommended by the CDC?
  • Comprehensive protocols are in place for the protection of staff and patients, including the appropriate use of personal protective equipment (PPE), in accordance with CDC guidance. In addition to providing detainees with soap for the shower and hand soap for sink handwashing, ICE provides alcohol-based sanitizer in visitor entrances, exits, waiting areas and to staff and detainees in the secure setting whenever possible. ICE also provides soap and paper towels that are present in bathrooms and work areas within the facilities. Everyday cleaning supplies such as soap dispensers and paper towels are routinely checked and are available for use. Detainees are encouraged to communicate with local staff when additional hygiene supplies or products are needed.
  • Are detainees’ temperatures monitored regularly?
  • The health, welfare and safety of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees is one of the agency’s highest priorities. Since the onset of reports of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), ICE epidemiologists have been tracking the outbreak, regularly updating infection prevention and control protocols, and issuing guidance to ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC) staff for the screening and management of potential exposure among detainees.
  • ICE continues to incorporate CDC’s COVID-19 guidance, which is built upon the already established infectious disease monitoring and management protocols currently in use by the agency. In addition, ICE is actively working with state and local health partners to determine if any detainee requires additional testing or monitoring to combat the spread of the virus.
  • Is there sufficient PPE available to detainees?
  • Yes.  Face coverings are provided to detainees in instances where appropriate and in keeping with CDC guidance such as anytime they are transferred from one detention facility to another, or on removal charter flights.
  • How are detainees who test positive isolated?
  • 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. This prevents the spread of the agent to other individuals and the general public. ICE transports individuals with moderate to severe symptoms, or those who require higher levels of care or monitoring, to appropriate hospitals with expertise in high-risk care. Detainees who do not have fever or symptoms, but meet CDC criteria for epidemiologic risk, are housed separately in a single cell, or as a group, depending on available space. ICE reviews CDC guidance daily and continues to update protocols to remain consistent with CDC guidance.

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is working closely with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other federal, state, and local agencies to facilitate a speedy, whole-of-government response in confronting Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). ICE is reviewing CDC guidance daily and will continue to update protocols to remain consistent with CDC guidance,” the statement from ICE said. 

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