Immigration Detention Facilities Could Become Coronavirus Hot Spots
Thursday, March 26, 2020
Credit: Associated Press
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Advocates say the greatest risk of the spread of coronavirus doesn’t come from the detainees themselves, who have been kept isolated from the larger world for weeks and months, but from the guards and other employees at facilities.
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When immigration attorney Dorien Ediger-Seto walked in to the Otay Mesa Detention Center last week to deliver papers to a client, she was shocked by what she saw.
She said she witnessed guards and employees at the private facility — which is contracted by ICE — going about their work without taking necessary precautions to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
“None of the guards had gloves, the security guards were not practicing social-distancing, there were signs up telling people to do, but it looked very much like business as usual at the detention center,” said Ediger-Seto, an attorney at the National Immigrant Justice Center.
Advocates say the greatest risk of the spread of coronavirus doesn’t come from the detainees themselves, who have been kept isolated from the larger world for weeks and months, but from the guards and other employees at the facility.
On Monday, an immigrant detainee in a county jail in New Jersey became the first person in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody to test positive for coronavirus. A week before, an employee at the same jail had tested positive for coronavirus.
As of Thursday morning, there have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in ICE detention in California.
CoreCivic, which runs Otay Mesa, provided KPBS with a series of guidelines that its employees are following to stop the spread of the virus.
Among the guidelines are instructions that employees avoid close contact with people who are sick, and avoid touching their eyes, noses and mouths with unwashed hands. They also implore staff to cough or sneeze into a tissue and then throw the tissue into the trash.
While social distancing is not part of the guidelines, a spokesperson for CorceCivic said it was highly encouraged, and has been promoted during staff meetings and the posters throughout the facility.
But one of Ediger-Seto’s clients, Juan, an asylum-seeker who was released from Otay Mesa Detention Center this week, says he didn’t see the guards changing their behavior in recent weeks. KPBS is withholding his last name because of his ongoing asylum case.
“No, no, no, nothing,” Juan said when asked if guards had taken any precautions. “They only thing they told us was just to keep our hands washed and clean.”
On Wednesday, a group of civil rights organizations filed for an emergency ruling in federal court in Riverside that would force ICE to reduce its detainee population, step up its safety measures during the pandemic, and identify those detainees with underlying conditions.
“People cannot be six feet apart,” said Lisa Graybill, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the groups that filed suit. “At detention facilities — where people are shoulder-to-shoulder, bunk-to-bunk — social distancing is an impossibility.”
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