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Calling on governors and state health officials to use their authority to act in the interest of public health and protect immigration detainees, Human Rights First, Amnesty International USA and Physicians for Human Rights asked that these officials direct drastic reductions in detention occupancy and pressure the federal government to release immigration detainees being held in their states, in letters sent out today.

State-level officials have proven themselves decisive in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, taking action to limit social interaction, pulling health permits for large events, canceling concerts and closing schools and public buildings. Advocates from the three groups also sent a similar letter appealing to the acting head of the Department of Homeland Security.

“One of the most critical steps you can take to immediately reduce the spread of COVID-19 is to utilize your public health and licensing authority to instruct federal immigration detention facilities, county and local jails to substantially reduce their detainee occupancy capacity,” the letter reads. “Given the documented inadequacies of medical care and basic hygiene in immigration detention facilities, it is of vital importance for state public health authorities to address the state-wide risk posed by crowded immigration detention facilities.”

Full text of the letter to state officials can be found here and to Acting Director of DHS Chad Wolf here.

Immigrants detained by ICE, as well as lawyers and those working in the detention facilities and in immigration courts face grave risks if they are exposed to infection in immigration detention facilities. Already, a staff member employed at an ICE detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey is being tested after exhibiting symptoms of coronavirus. Rapid spread within crowded detention centers is a major concern.

“The COVID-19 pandemic exposes immigrants and staff at detention facilities to unacceptable, unnecessary and grave risks. These facilities also threaten the health and safety of the broader community and country,” said Dr. Michele Heisler, medical director at Physicians for Human Rights. “You can’t practice social distancing in a crowded detention facility. Given the well-documented medical neglect, poor sanitation, and often inadequate supplies of necessities such as soap in many detention facilities, it is essential that state authorities act now to safeguard the health and human rights of detainees and the public.”

Public health experts have already recommended reducing the population in prisons and detention centers in response to the pandemic. The letter to governors and state health officials explained that the release of detained immigrants by ICE is already authorized under existing federal laws, regulations and agency guidance, including the legal authority to release people under its parole authority.

“Detention for traumatized asylum-seekers and other immigrants awaiting their day in immigration court has never been necessary or humane, but now it also presents a danger to their health and the health of the community,” said Human Rights First’s Director of Refugee Protection Eleanor Acer. “The legal authority to release people in immigration detention already exists, all that is needed is for the Department of Homeland Security to begin to parole people. We are asking governors and state health officials to press their federal counterparts to do what is in the best interest of public health and human rights. Depriving asylum seekers and immigrants of visits from family or friends, but leaving them stuck in densely populated facilities, is not the answer.  It’s a recipe for a health and human rights disaster.”

ICE’s current protocols include suspending visitation by family members for all facilities and isolation for people who meet the exposure risk criteria. ICE has said that it will transfer those requiring a higher level of care to hospitals, but creating additional strain on the U.S. healthcare system can be avoided by dramatically reducing the population of detention centers now.

“All people should have the same access to care and safety, and immigrants and asylum-seekers can’t be treated as an afterthought. As the U.S. responds to the COVID-19 pandemic, the men, women and children locked up in U.S. immigration detention are left behind in crowded facilities with limited access to care and exposed to greater risk of infection,” said Denise Bell, Researcher for Refugee and Migrant Rights at Amnesty International USA. “Governors and state health officials should urge the U.S. government to safeguard the universally recognized human right to health and immediately mitigate the risk of infection, illness and death by releasing immigrants and asylum-seekers from detention.”