Staffer At Colo. Detention Center Diagnosed With COVID-19

Law360 (March 25, 2020, 8:38 PM EDT) -- A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement administrative staffer who works at the Aurora, Colorado, detention facility has been diagnosed with COVID-19, an ICE spokesperson confirmed to Law360 on Wednesday.

The staffer does not have direct contact with detainees, and she has not been at work for about a week, the ICE spokesperson said. The spokesperson said the staffer does not have access to the area of the facility where people held in detention are kept.

The spokesperson also said there have not previously been any quarantines in place at the detention facility, which is operated by private contractor The GEO Group Inc., but would not confirm whether the center was "cohorting" detainees, which is done in cases in which people may have been exposed.

"We're pretty good at working with infectious disease," the ICE spokesperson said, citing the agency's handling of past outbreaks of mumps and chickenpox at the facility.

However, Laura Lunn, managing attorney at the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, which provides pro bono legal services to people detained at the Aurora facility, said the organization’s clients had reported that one dormitory in the center had been sealed off after someone in the dorm got sick.

Individuals held in the A2 dorm were not permitted to leave, including to attend their immigration court hearings, she said. Lunn also said multiple clients have reported that people held in the facility are experiencing flu-like symptoms, but she couldn't verify their illnesses. 

"People within the facility are reporting to us that they’re terrified. People have told us that they’re afraid that they're never going to get to see their loved ones again," Lunn told Law360 on Wednesday.

Attorneys have also reported that their clients have recently been suddenly released from the facility.

Mark Barr, a Colorado-based immigration attorney, told Law360 on Wednesday that a client of his detained at the Aurora facility who suffers from an existing medical condition was suddenly released from detention on Tuesday, along with several other detainees.

Lunn said she was also aware that a group of transgender individuals had been released earlier this week, including one who had previously been denied release and another who hadn’t even requested it.

"That's very atypical, and that's something we took note of," she said.

The ICE spokesperson said she could not speak to individual release decisions. A spokesperson for GEO Group said that none of the company's employees at the Aurora center had been diagnosed with COVID-19.

The spokesperson also referred to GEO's previously issued statement saying the contractor has "updated our policies and procedures to include the best practices for the prevention, assessment and management of the coronavirus," including by ordering swab tests, offering flexible paid leave policies for employees and enacting quarantine and isolation measures if employees are exposed. 

The U.S. Department of Justice said Wednesday that the immigration court in Aurora, Colorado, as well as two others, will be closed Thursday "as a precautionary measure."

News of the new diagnosis comes one day after ICE disclosed that the agency's first detainee, a 31-year-old Mexican citizen held at the Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, New Jersey, had been diagnosed with the virus, which has infected more than 65,200 people in the U.S.

An ICE employee at New Jersey's Elizabeth Contract Detention Facility has also been diagnosed with the disease, ICE reported Tuesday.

Immigration lawyers have long feared a possible coronavirus outbreak in an immigration detention facility, where immigrants are kept in close quarters and, according to advocates, often lack access to proper medical care.

The Aurora facility in particular has taken heat for its handling of various outbreaks in the past. An administrative complaint filed in 2018 by the American Immigration Council and the American Immigration Lawyers Association accused the government of a "long-standing and systemic failure to provide adequate medical and mental health care" at the Aurora facility.

Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., whose district includes the detention center, wrote to former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen last year raising "serious concerns" about the facility and requesting more information about the agency's handling of past chickenpox outbreaks.

As the coronavirus pandemic grows in the U.S., multiple lawsuits have been filed urging ICE to release immigrants who have been accused of civil offenses from their custody to protect their health, but with mixed results.

On Wednesday, a Massachusetts federal judge ordered ICE to release one immigrant involved in a class action suit from custody, saying he wasn't comfortable telling attorneys to avoid coming to court during the coronavirus pandemic while incarcerating someone who had not been charged with a crime. The immigrant will now return home with an ankle monitor.

Two days earlier, the Ninth Circuit issued a published decision sua sponte, or without either party requesting it, ordering the release of an immigrant who had brought an appeal before the circuit court, "in light of the rapidly escalating public health crisis, which public health authorities predict will especially impact immigration detention centers."

Earlier this month, however, a federal judge in Washington state refused to temporarily release detainees held at a Tacoma detention center to shield them from an outbreak.

Lunn called on ICE to release people in detention.

"I think any detention center is ill-equipped to handle a pandemic," she said. "Imagine being forced to live in a detention facility with 600 other people, with absolutely no assurance of your own safety. It's just abhorrent that people are being put in this position, again, for a civil violation."

--Additional reporting by Chris Villani. Editing by Stephen Berg.

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