Last weekend, a man recently held at the Northwest detention center in Tacoma tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Immigration officials say he contracted the virus after being transferred to an Arizona facility on March 31, according to a court filing. He wasn’t showing symptoms when he left Tacoma, and no detainees he was housed with there have shown any, either.

But Matt Adams of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) said there is no way to tell where and when the man got the virus given that “ICE, and in fact the whole country, is operating on quicksand.”

Like prisons and other congregate facilities, detention centers offer fertile breeding ground for COVID-19. The heightened risk to older detainees and those with health conditions led NWIRP and the ACLU to file a lawsuit last month on behalf of vulnerable plaintiffs seeking immediate release from the Tacoma facility.

Underscoring the uncertainty, Adams said, officials there “continue to avoid testing people.”

Calling from the detention center, plaintiff Marjoris Ramirez-Ochoa, who has kidney disease and epilepsy, said she asked a doctor there for a test last week as she was experiencing headaches and shortness of breath. It never happened, she said.

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As of April 6, three detainees and three employees have had coronavirus tests, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). No one has tested positive.

ICE and officials at the GEO Group, which runs the Tacoma detention center, say they are taking substantial precautions. “We take our responsibility to ensure the health and safety of all those in our care and our employees with the utmost seriousness,” GEO said in a statement.

U.S. District Judge James Robart has turned down motions by NWIRP and the ACLU for immediate releases. The lawsuit remains active, and the judge has ordered officials to report within 24 hours any confirmed COVID-19 case, resulting in the filing about the man transferred to Arizona.

As the illness spreads inside other detention centers, with ICE reporting 89 cases nationwide as of Wednesday, some fear an outbreak at the Tacoma facility is just a matter of time.

“It’s like a chicken coop,” said detainee Perla Martinez-Acosta, speaking by phone. “If someone gets sick, we all get sick.”

This week, U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the Seattle Democrat, and former presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker, of New Jersey, announced proposed legislation to release as many as 80% of the tens of thousands detainees nationwide. They would include those older than 50, younger than 21 and detainees with health conditions putting them at greater risk.

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ICE has already been releasing high-risk detainees on a “case-by-case basis” as it works to reduce detention center populations “to 70% or less to increase social distancing,” according to agency statements. ICE says it has released 693 detainees nationally as of April 10. Adams said he knows of nine detainees released in Tacoma, four of them plaintiffs in the NWIRP and ACLU lawsuit.

“It’s not enough,” Jayapal said in a joint news conference with Booker.

Their proposal, likely a tough sell in Congress, also would suspend immigration enforcement unless public safety is at risk. ICE says it is already taking steps in this direction, but Jayapal and Booker say their legislation would go further.

Courts in some parts of the country have ordered detainees released, Robart acknowledged in an April 8 ruling. But he said those rulings applied to facilities with outbreaks, unlike the Tacoma detention center.

The judge cited measures officials say they have taken there. They include isolating incoming detainees for two weeks to see if they develop COVID-19 symptoms before releasing them into the general population; holding “town hall” meetings to urge detainees to wash hands and cover coughs; and handing out extra disinfectant to clean tables, microwaves and other shared surfaces.

What’s more, detention center administrator Stephen Langford said in a declaration the facility has been operating at half-capacity for the past six months, with roughly 800 detainees.

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He and immigration officials have not explained why. Adams said it could be because of President Donald Trump’s policy requiring asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico while pursuing their claims. Many detainees at the Northwest detention center have historically come from the southern border, as well as elsewhere in the country.

Whatever the reason, the population drop means “detainees have the ability to remain at least 6 feet of physical distance from one another,” Langford wrote. In fact, he said, dividing the area of a pod by the number of residents, each detainee has 50 square feet of “day room” space and 31 of sleeping space.

“The court cannot conclude either that the spread of COVID-19 inside the NWDC is inevitable, or that Respondents [ICE and GEO officials] will be unable to contain it if it occurs,” Robart wrote in his ruling,

“No one can entirely guarantee safety in the midst of a global pandemic,” he added.

Still, Robart noted some detainees say conditions are worse than what ICE and GEO claim. Plaintiffs, for instance, said beds are a foot or less apart.

On the phone, detainee Martinez-Acosta said people don’t spread out in the day room either. In white-walled rooms with tables, beds and not much to occupy their time,“where are we going to go?” she asked. Are people going to sit in opposite corners of the room, she wondered.

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A picture of a men’s pod taken by a detainee’s family member this week during a video chat, and sent to the advocacy group La Resistencia, shows detainees clustered at tables and leaning side by side against an upper-level railing.

Plaintiff Karlena Dawson said “pill lines,” leading to a window where nurses dispense medication, also bring detainees into close proximity. “We’re all sitting on a bench, waiting.”

Dawson, a 48-year-old from Jamaica who has diabetes and liver disease, said she also worried about contracting the virus from guards – some of whom use masks and gloves, and some of whom don’t.

It’s a common concern, said Maru Mora-Villapando, a longtime activist and an organizer with La Resistencia. “I have never seen this level of panicking,” she said.

La Resistencia says three hunger strikes have recently broken out – a contention denied by ICE, saying advocates were engaging in “propaganda.”

In late March, Dawson said a detention center doctor informed her of troubling results from blood work related to her liver disease and sent her to the hospital for more tests. When she got back, she was told she was getting out.

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Dawson was not given a reason, she said, speaking by phone from an apartment in Seattle where she is staying. 

Dawson’s release does not mean she’s off the hook. With a prior deportation and drug conviction in her past, she has been ordered deported again and has appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Fleeing what she said was an abusive relationship in Jamaica, she is seeking protection under the United Nations Convention against Torture. She has also applied for a U Visa, available to some crime victims and their families, based on abuse she said two of her children suffered in foster care.

She spent more than a year in detention while awaiting decisions. But with the coronavirus changing the rules of so many things, ICE has decided she, at least, can now check in with the agency by phone.

 

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