An immigration court located at the Aurora ICE facility is shutting down hearings for ten days following a large outbreak of COVID-19 among detainees.
"Nobody knows what's going on. People are scared. People are anxious. Nobody is getting their court dates," says a detainee who recently tested positive for COVID while staying at the facility, and asked that his name not be used for fear of retaliation.
Westword spoke with multiple immigration attorneys who say they were recently told by the court's clerk that hearings would be canceled for ten days.
"When I asked whether it was regarding the COVID outbreak, [the clerk staffer] simply said, 'That’s all of the information we are being given by ICE,'" says immigration attorney Ariana Fuentes, who has a client with an upcoming bond hearing that has now been delayed over three weeks because of the closure.
Nicole King, a third-year law student at the University of Denver who is representing a detainee at the facility, says she called the clerk's office on October 9 and was told by an employee: "We just received word today that it's going to be a facility-wide lockdown. I can't give you any more information. If you need more info, call the detention center directly." Her client's bond hearing was also delayed by three weeks.
According to ICE, at least 37 detainees have tested positive for COVID in connection with a single recent outbreak in a dormitory at the ICE facility, which houses asylum seekers, lawful immigrants who have criminal convictions, and undocumented immigrants both with and without criminal convictions.
The Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the court, did not return a request for comment.
Asked what measures are being taken at the facility to get a grip on the COVID outbreak, a spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement deferred to GEO Group, the private prison company that runs the Aurora Contract Detention Facility. GEO Group did not return a request for comment.
"This spread within a single dorm shows the inherently dangerous nature of congregate settings like ICE detention centers. Even if the facility were following all CDC recommendations, an outbreak like this is not only possible, but likely. The safest thing ICE can do is release people to shelter at home with their families," says Liz Jordan, an attorney with the Denver-based Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center.
The detainee Westword spoke with says he was in a warehouse-style dormitory in the south annex of the facility in September when various dormmates started exhibiting COVID-like symptoms. Everyone in the dormitory was subsequently tested; almost all of the thirty-plus individuals staying there, including himself, had positive COVID test results, he adds.
Per ICE protocol, after testing positive, the detainee was housed in his own cell for fourteen days. After those two weeks, the detainee was moved to a shared space that's more like a warehouse, where detainees are using the same shower and toilets. "It's like a summer camp. All the bunk beds are together. There's no social distancing in there," says the detainee, who has since been moved to another dormitory.
A second detainee who was in the same warehouse-style dormitory says that "it was really scary because people started getting sick and were getting taken out one by one." This detainee, who also asked that his name not be used out of fear of retaliation, tested negative for COVID and is now housed in a cell with two other detainees. "It’s really, really frustrating to see how we’re being treated here," he says. "I understand that we’re not people who are from the U.S. But you still should treat us like human beings, and you still should treat us with basic care, which they’re not providing. It was much better on the outside."
On October 5, Congressman Jason Crow, a Democrat whose district includes Aurora, recently spoke with the ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations Denver field office director, who gave him more details about the outbreak.
"They haven’t been able to determine how it’s spreading. They don’t believe it’s coming from transfers, but rather an internal spread, which is a change," Crow told Westword following his phone call with the director, John Fabbricatore.
Crow says that Fabbricatore told him that the situation at the facility was under control. "His response is that he believes they have the capacity and capability to handle the outbreak. They have an overabundance of PPE and have staffing in the facility to handle current issues," Crow said. "I expressed a high degree of concern over that. We saw in the past week how fast COVID can spread at the White House, and then you compare that to this detention center. This is a potential hotbed for spread and could pose extreme danger to detainees and staff and to the community."
The detention center, which has a capacity of 1,532, has been housing around 300 ICE detainees at a time in recent weeks. About 75 U.S. Marshal detainees were also located there on October 1, one of whom had contracted COVID and had since recovered. A total of 73 ICE detainees have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Aurora detention center.
There was also a temporary shutdown of hearings at the Aurora immigration court in late March, following a positive COVID test result for an ICE administrative staffer.
Immigration attorneys have been using a variety of methods to try to secure the release of clients. Some have sought bond hearings, while others have filed humanitarian parole applications. Others have sued for the release of detainees, which has led to the release of some plaintiffs...but not all.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.