Nevada is shutting down restaurants, bars, gyms and schools to try to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has now killed over 100 people in the United States, but U.S. immigration detention centers remain full and crowded.
Late Wednesday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement sent out a statement that the agency would “focus enforcement on public safety risks and individuals subject to mandatory detention based on criminal grounds” and “exercise discretion to delay enforcement actions until after the crisis or utilize alternatives to detention.”
But throughout the weekend while government officials in Nevada have advocated for “social distancing,” ICE continued field operations in the state, exposing staff and detainees to dangerous conditions during the current pandemic.
On Sunday, ICE arrested a father of three children when he left his home to buy cleaning supplies and food in preparation for possible COVID-19 related isolation.
“Since most stores are currently empty, he was also looking to buy food when he was detained by ICE and taken into custody,” said his daughter, Jessica Chavez in a statement issued in conjunction with immigration advocates. “My dad is a hard-working person; he has a clean criminal record and has never been arrested or charged with any crimes. He has a United States citizen teenage daughter who depends on him emotionally and financially.”
His daughter also expressed concern about his health and the possibility of him being kept in a confined space with other people, mentioning he felt sick at the time of his arrest.
The family’s lawyer, Sarah Perez, said when she visited her client she was told he was one of several undocumented immigrants detained over the weekend.
“The undocumented community is more vulnerable than ever at this time. We need to put a stop to ICE. They should at least have a moratorium while this pandemic is on going. They are putting inmates in danger by continuing to bring in people from the outside,” Perez said. “Not only that you’re talking away possibly the breadwinner of the family. We’re seeing people lose their jobs left and right.”
Perez’s client is also being cut off from his family due to an order from the Trump administration that temporarily suspends family visits in immigration detention centers across the country in response to the virus. Phone calls and video calls are now the only option for anxious families trying to stay in touch, but are increasingly expensive. One Nevada immigration lawyer said a 13 second voicemail from a client cost $5.75 cents to hear.
Immigrant and civil rights organizations from across the state are making urgent calls for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release the most vulnerable — at least — for health safety reasons.
Detention centers have high turnover rates, argue advocates, with people being released and admitted into tight quarters every day without adequate testing.
Community advocates in Nevada sent a joint letter Tuesday to the ICE Field Office Director Robert Culley, demanding that he use his discretion to cease all ICE field operations, release ICE detainees, and implement proactive plans to deal with COVID-19 at the Henderson Detention Center, Nevada Southern Detention Center, Washoe County Jail and Nye County Jail.
“The ICE field director has complete discretion over parole,” said Paloma Guerrero, a fellow at the UNLV Immigration Clinic who worked on the letter. “This is all in their power. They can stop going into our communities and detaining people and putting them in completely dangerous conditions.”
Advocates and attorneys say they are troubled by ICE’s record with handling infectious diseases. In recent years, ICE facilities across the nation have experienced disease outbreaks including measles, mumps, and chickenpox.
In Nevada, as of Thursday morning, there are 95 positive cases of COVID-19. The state had its first coronavirus related death last week leaving organizations and immigration attorneys fearful that it’s only a matter of time before the virus makes it into vulnerable populations in detention centers.
“Prisons and jails are breeding grounds for diseases,” Guerrero said. “Even in the best of times we still see many public health concerns coming out of ICE detention centers. We’ve seen reports of multiple deaths in detention centers, and the detention centers are the kinds of gathering the president, the governor, the CDC are all asking us to avoid.”
There are currently nearly 39,000 individuals in U.S. immigration detention. In May 2019, ICE had detained over 52,000 individuals and the agency has requested capacity to detain 60,000 for FY2021.
When asked what precautions are being made in light of the current pandemic, an ICE spokesperson referred questions to an “ICE guidance on COVID-19” fact sheet.
As of March 16, 2020, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in ICE detention facilities, according to the agency’s website. The ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC), the only entity in ICE with the responsibility of providing direct care, will isolate “detainees with fever and/or respiratory symptoms who meet these criteria and observe them for a specified time period” and outline comprehensive measures to slow the spread of the virus.
On whether ICE would release a detainee with symptoms or who test positive for COVID-19, the website says “ICE only has authority to detain individuals for immigration purposes. ICE cannot hold any detainee ordered released by a judge.”
Several cities are working to lessen the prison population and halt court proceedings during the pandemic. In Clark County a judge temporarily suspended all civil and criminal trials scheduled for the next 30 days, along with jury selection. Beyond that, all scheduled nonessential court hearings will be rescheduled or conducted by video or telephonic means.
Most ICE detainees are locked up not because of criminal convictions, but because they are going through immigration proceedings, said Guerrero. She and other advocates argue there are better alternatives to detention — ankle monitors, for example — it could ease pandemic pressures within the centers, and protect the health of employees and detainees.
Individual hearings of those going to trial, like those asking for asylum, are still being held in person meaning attorneys and judges are still being required to go to court, putting those living with immunocompromised or elderly family members in a difficult situation.
“This is an area where the government is completely faltering,” Guerrero said.
More than a dozen organizations and attorneys signed the letter calling on ICE to cease field operations, including UNLV Immigration Clinic, ACLU of Nevada, Mi Familia Vota, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, Arriba Las Vegas Worker Center, Planned Parenthood, Make the Road Nevada, Legal Aid of Southern Nevada, and the Faith Organizing Alliance.
Note: This story was updated with the statement from ICE that the agency will delay some enforcement actions until after the coronavirus crisis.