ICE Urged To Release Detainees Amid Outbreak In Colo.

By Alyssa Aquino
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Law360 (October 29, 2020, 9:50 PM EDT) -- A Colorado immigration detention center run by private prison company GEO Group is experiencing "an uncontrolled transmission of COVID-19," and some immigrants may be at risk of dying, according to advocates calling on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release the detainees.

Nicole Murad, the Colorado chair of the American Immigration Lawyers' Association, said during a press call on Thursday that COVID-19 had "spiked" in recent weeks, with about 25% to 30% of the detainees at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility being infected.

"There is constant new kindling to put on the COVID-19 fire in this detention center," Murad said.

In addition to 45 detainees having tested positive for COVID-19 at the Aurora facility, two employees of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement also contracted the disease, according to ICE's Oct. 27 count of detainees and employees infected with the virus.

Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., reported that 305 people were detained in Aurora as of his Oct. 21 site visit.

Dr. Carlos Franco-Paredes, an infectious disease expert associated with the University of Colorado, said several of the Aurora detainees "are at the highest risk" of medical complications if they become infected with COVID-19.

"There's no reason to keep people in there, at the risk of a COVID-19 death," he said.

The physician further advocated for ICE to better treat detainees who contract the virus.

ICE generally groups, or quarantines, people infected with COVID-19. But Franco-Paredes said the quarantine was more like solitary confinement that emotionally distressed the detainees and likely aggravated their illness.

Detainees in quarantine go unchecked for long periods of time, Franco-Paredes said.

Franco-Paredes highlighted one medical case he consulted on at the Aurora facility. The patient, with a history of lung disease, had been kept in the detention center for two weeks with symptoms of COVID-19 before he was taken to the hospital, Franco-Paredes said.

The doctors determined that the patient had been treated with oxygen by the time he arrived at the hospital. The levels of oxygen the patient received were high, indicating that he had developed severe virus-related complications, Franco-Paredes said.

"Instead of treating [the detainees], [ICE is] waiting for them to be complicated," he said.

A spokesperson for ICE said in a statement to Law360 that the agency provides comprehensive medical care to all individuals in its custody.

"Staffing for detainees includes registered nurses and licensed practical nurses, licensed mental health providers, mid-level providers that include a physician's assistant and nurse practitioner, a physician, dental care, and access to 24-hour emergency care," the spokesperson said.

ICE spends more than $269 million annually on detainee health care, according to the statement.

Before the pandemic, a group of detainees accused ICE of providing inadequate medical and mental health care in its detention centers. After COVID-19 hit the U.S., the California judge overseeing the case, U.S. District Judge Jesus G. Bernal, ordered the agency to quickly evaluate and potentially release the thousands of immigrant detainees especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

ICE has since had "spotty compliance" with that safety order, Judge Bernal said in an October order instructing ICE to make more timely release reviews for detainees with virus risk factors.

"Only in rare cases" should a highly vulnerable detainee not subject to mandatory detention remain detained, the judge said.

The judge further ordered ICE to increase its COVID-19 testing and to develop minimum care and hospitalization protocols for detainees who test positive. The agency must also distinguish its medical isolation practices from solitary, segregated or punitive housing, the judge said.

Elizabeth Jordan, a litigator in that California suit, said Thursday that what's happening in Aurora puts ICE in violation of Judge Bernal's instructions. But she stressed that the situation in Aurora isn't unique among ICE's detention system.

"Despite two orders from a federal judge … they are still not taking the steps needed to keep people safe," Jordan said.

Murad called on ICE to meaningfully comply with Judge Bernal's order, release vulnerable detainees and agree to release more people on their personal recognizance. She further urged ICE to adhere to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's standards of care for people infected with COVID-19 and to stop transferring detainees between its prisons.

--Additional reporting by Hailey Konnath. Editing by Haylee Pearl.

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