As the number of COVID-19 cases at the immigrant detention center in Tacoma climbed to nearly 240 since June, a federal magistrate judge wrestled Friday with how to stop an outbreak that has been largely driven by transfers from the southern border, where hundreds of thousands of migrants have arrived in recent months.
Lawyers representing vulnerable detainees in a class-action suit have asked the U.S. District Court for Western Washington to issue a temporary restraining order that would forbid Immigration and Customs Enforcement to place people at the Northwest ICE Processing Center unless they had been tested before boarding planes and separated according to whether their results were positive.
In the last 10 weeks, ICE has flown more than 1,000 detained migrants to Washington, according to Eunice Cho, an attorney with the ACLU of Washington, at a telephone hearing. (Hundreds have ultimately been released from the facility, whose current population is about 530). Cho and other lawyers say some appear to have contracted COVID-19 in the process of being transferred.
“There is no good reason why testing cannot be happening before a cross-country flight,” Cho said. “At this point in the pandemic, it’s quick, it’s widely available. You can pick up a rapid COVID self-test at the corner drugstore that takes 15 minutes for $10.”
Magistrate Judge Michelle Peterson said she was struggling with what to do.
“We, obviously, are seeing a severe uptick in COVID cases,” she said. “So why are we adding fuel to the fire by admitting individuals [who] I believe have a test positive rate of 12%,” she said, referring to those coming from the southern border. “It seems like there are no measures being taken to protect those individuals.”
They, in turn, can expose employees at the detention center, Peterson said. The 240 COVID-19 cases there included 20 employees as of Friday morning, according to Aaron Korthuis at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which along with the ACLU is representing plaintiffs in the class-action suit.
The cases also include 27 people in the general population as of Friday, although new arrivals remain separate until they have two negative COVID-19 tests. Five people have been hospitalized.
Peterson wondered, however, what ICE could reasonably do to stem the outbreak, and closely questioned Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Lambert.
Lambert said testing detained migrants before flights was not practical. ICE takes custody of them at a border airport, after they have been bused there from crowded Customs and Border Protection holding facilities.
“Even though there are some rapid tests, they aren’t so rapid when we’re talking about 100 people, or 80 people or 150 people,” Lambert said. Testing them all could take six to 10 hours, she said, time people would spend mingling on a hot tarmac, potentially exposing each other.
At the detention center, new arrivals, after an intake process that includes COVID-19 testing, are usually put in one- to four-person cells, though on at least two occasions some have been placed in open dorm units of up to 80 beds.
Stopping transfers into the Tacoma facility won’t help the overall situation given the unprecedented number of people at the border, Lambert added. “Those people have to go somewhere.”
Taking that in, Peterson said she was concerned that the requested restraining order would just push people to other facilities.
Joan Mell, a lawyer for the GEO Group, the private corporation that runs the facility in conjunction with ICE, suggested there are no easy answers. “I don’t know what the court does with this. I know we’ve been struggling amongst ourselves to come up with solutions that make sense, but you shake your head and you just run into one problem after another.”
Peterson said she will make a recommendation to Judge James Robart, who has the final say, by Monday — a day before a new ICE flight carrying migrants bound for Tacoma is due to land.