With concerns growing about correctional facilities becoming sites of major COVID-19 outbreaks, local immigration lawyers are frustrated with a lack of information from Immigration and Customs Enforcement about what's happening inside the Aurora detention facility operated by GEO Group.
"Ordinarily, the stakeholders here, like immigration court and ICE, are very communicative with us. We’ve gotten used to having open lines of communication," says Laura Lunn, an attorney who manages the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network's detention program. "We’ve never experienced stonewalling in the way that they are now. I can’t help but believe it’s all coming from higher-ups, and it’s completely out of their hands."
Lunn and her staff have heard from clients in one of the facility's pods, which houses dozens of detainees, that it's under quarantine and that multiple people within that pod are exhibiting symptoms tied to coronavirus. "They’re just sitting ducks. They’re extremely vulnerable and they know it," says Lunn, who adds that facility staffers aren't telling the detainees or their lawyers what's happening.
As of March 20, there were 687 detainees in the facility. With little information coming from ICE, attorneys say they have only the word of detainees.
"Most of the information we’ve been able to get is from clients within the facility," says Kristin Knudson, the Colorado chapter chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
ICE has not responded to questions about how many detainees at the facility are being isolated, and for what reason. It has declined to answer questions about testing.
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"I know that they are doing testing," says Bernadette Albanese, the medical epidemiologist with the Tri-County Health Department. "They are doing some testing at the state lab, and they may be doing some testing at the commercial lab."
"I have been told that testing is available for both staff and detainees," adds Gary Sky, a spokesperson for the health department. "I do not know if any staff members have decided to be tested."
On March 25, ICE notified staffers that an administrative ICE employee had tested positive for COVID-19; that employee had been at the Aurora facility as recently as last week. Following confirmation of the positive case, the Department of Justice announced via Twitter that the immigration court in Aurora would be closed for a day "as a precautionary measure."
Lawyers have been asking for that court to be closed, as the immigration court in Denver has been. As it is, they say that when they go to the detained court or visit clients at the facility, they're required to wear eye protection, masks and gloves. But they're not given any specific information as to why they must take such protective actions.
One legal group thinks that ICE may be stonewalling media outlets and lawyers alike because of concern about lawsuits, a charge ICE denies.
"Having sued ICE before," says Arash Jahanian, the director of policy and civil-rights litigation at the Meyer Law Office, "they will frequently cite some kind of ongoing litigation as a reason to clam up about any kind of related issue when speaking with attorneys or the media."
The ACLU is currently suing ICE in various jurisdictions nationwide, demanding the release of detainees who are particularly vulnerable to contracting a serious case of COVID-19, such as older individuals and people with suppressed immune systems.
But the ACLU of Colorado says it has no plans to sue ICE to demand the release of detainees from the detention facility in Aurora.
Carlos Franco-Paredes, an infectious-disease doctor with the University of Colorado, agrees that the ICE facility should make an effort to reduce the detainee population and release vulnerable individuals.
"The potential for the spread of one of these outbreaks within that detention facility may have significant casualties," says Franco-Paredes, who notes that a major increase of COVID-19 cases in the facility could overwhelm nearby hospitals. Franco-Paredes sent a letter to local ICE leadership last week sharing his concerns; ICE has declined to comment on that letter.
In recent weeks, Lunn and her staff at the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network have filed approximately twenty humanitarian parole requests for their clients, some of whom are considered vulnerable in relation to COVID-19. Those requests have not yet been adjudicated, according to Lunn. ICE did not respond to questions from Westword about paroling vulnerable detainees.
But ICE appears to have significantly decreased its female population in the past few days.
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On March 26, approximately a dozen women from one pod were released, according to Sarah Jackson, the executive director of Casa de Paz, an organization that helps newly released detainees link up with their sponsors. "In the eight years that I've been running Casa de Paz, I've never seen anything like this," Jackson says of the number of detainees released at once.
ICE also released multiple trans detainees, some of whom are HIV-positive, from the detention facility earlier this week, according to Allegra Love, an immigration attorney. ICE declined to answer any questions about the parole of any detainees.
A Denver immigration judge is currently at home after exhibiting symptoms consistent with COVID-19. Additionally, according to an oversight check on the Aurora facility performed by Congressman Jason Crow's office, on March 12 ten detainees were exposed to an immigration attorney who may have had COVID-19. One of those detainees was released on bond, while the nine others were quarantined together, separate from other detainees. They were supposed to be released from quarantine on March 26.
According to ICE's website, however, as of March 26 only two of its detainees, both of whom are located in New Jersey, have tested positive for COVID-19.