As Employee of Detention Center’s Medical Unit Tests Positive for COVID-19, Human Rights First Calls on States, ICE to Ensure Rapid Reduction of Detained Population
Washington D.C. – In response to confirmation that an ICE employee at an immigration detention center in New Jersey who self-quarantined a week ago with symptoms has tested positive for COVID-19, Human Rights First’s Deputy Legal Director Anwen Hughes gave the following statement:
“We remain gravely concerned about the health of asylum-seekers and immigrants held in detention facilities particularly in the wake of a positive diagnosis of a member of a detention center’s medical unit. Public health and prison experts have repeatedly recommended that detention facility populations be drastically reduced to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but ICE has refused to release people – including our pro bono asylum clients – despite having the legal authority to do so.
“While New Jersey’s Elizabeth Detention Center was awaiting final test results for a staff member who self-quarantined a week ago with symptoms of COVID-19, ICE continued to bring new detainees into the facility. Maintaining dense detainee populations is a recipe for a public health disaster. Immediate action is needed to avert serious health consequences. ICE has thus far failed to take steps drastically to reduce detention levels and protect detained asylum seekers and immigrants. State and local officials should use their public health powers to direct the reduction of occupancy in the detention facilities, state and local prisons and jails used by ICE. DOJ’s Executive Office of Immigration Review should immediately halt all in-person hearings except bond determinations for immigrants in detention, which can and should be conducted over the phone. Finally, ICE must immediately begin paroling detainees to lower detention center populations to avoid an explosion of infections.“
Earlier this week, Human Rights First, along with Physicians for Human Rights and Amnesty International USA sent letters calling on governors and state health officials – including New Jersey’s governor and health officials – to direct drastic reductions in detention occupancy and pressure the federal government to release immigration detainees being held in their states. Advocates from the three groups also sent a similar letter appealing to the acting head of the Department of Homeland Security to use existing parole authority to release asylum seekers and immigrants.