PORT ISABEL, Texas – A member of the Angry Tias and Abuelas group has welcomed a move by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release some migrants and asylum seekers who may be medically vulnerable to COVID-19.

However, Madeleine Sandefur says that policy needs to reach the Rio Grande Valley – so that migrants housed at ICE’s Port Isabel Detention Center can be allowed out.

“I find it ironic that just today, lawyers for a detainee at the Port Isabel Detention Center presented a case for medical release, and the case was denied,” Sandefur said.

Madeleine Sandefur

“Although this particular detainee is in his 30’s and may therefore not fall into the vulnerable category as far as age is concerned, he has been battling worsening diabetes, is experiencing loss of vision and has been advised by an eye specialist that he needs eye surgery immediately.”

Sandefur, who visits the Port Isabel facility regularly, said not only has ICE prevented the asylum seeker from receiving surgery, the agency has also denied his case.

“I am happy that the agency is releasing medically vulnerable people elsewhere in the country, and hope their directive reaches us down here in the RGV very soon,” Sandefur said.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the American Civil Liberties Union are among a number of groups that are urging ICE to move asylum seekers out of detention during the coronavirus pandemic. They believe asylum seekers are more likely to contract COVID-19 in the facility than in the community.

In a letter sent to Congress on Tuesday, ICE said it will be reviewing the cases of people in detention who may be medically vulnerable to COVID-19 and placing people in alternatives to detention. So far, the ACLU says, the agency has identified 600 people who fit that description, and it claims to have already released 160 of them from detention.

ACLU has filed lawsuits in 13 states across the country demanding that ICE release clients who are at high risk due to age or underlying medical conditions. So far, more than 30 of its clients have been released.

Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project, issued the following statement:

“ICE is finally acknowledging that what we have been fighting for in the courts is true: Immigrant detention is a death sentence for people who are at high risk due to age or underlying medical conditions. It is absolutely unconscionable that we would keep people detained under these conditions.

“Of course, public health experts have been clear that we need to see dramatic reductions in the 35,000 people who are detained — many more than 600 must be released to meaningfully mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and avoid a humanitarian crisis.”

Last week, the ACLU sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security calling for the temporary release of everyone in ICE detention for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a conference call with reporters last week, member of the CHC urged ICE to remove migrants and asylum seekers from detention centers because, the group said, such facilities “leave detainees extremely vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.”

U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, chars the CHC. He said ICE needs to heed the advice of health officials and remove migrants from the agency’s detention facilities.

“ICE facilities have shown themselves to be ill-prepared to provide adequate medical care to vulnerable detainees and have had issues containing outbreaks. Further, ICE often has to rely on local medical facilities to treat ill detainees. The novel coronavirus is a significant threat on a far greater scale,” Castro said.

“ICE’s failure to reduce detention numbers and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 has a real possibility of creating a severe health crisis for detention centers and overwhelming local health care facilities.”

Earlier this month, Castro and U.S. Rep. Linda Sánchez, D-Calif., called on DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf and HHS Secretary Alex Azar to share plans for “resource management, release of detainees, and treatment of individuals exhibiting symptoms in custody.” Sánchez chairs CHC’s Immigration Task Force.

In the time since, at least four migrants in custody and five ICE detention facility employees have tested positive for COVID-19, Sanchez said.

“In the weeks since, immigration attorneys, civil rights advocates, doctors, and public health experts have called for the release of detained populations and warned of the deadly risk of an outbreak in facilities.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows an ICE facility in Louisiana. (Photo credit: The Lens)

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