With state law enforcement agencies altering their approaches to detention in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus, pressure is mounting on Immigration and Customs Enforcement to do the same with its operations in Colorado, particularly at the GEO Group-run immigrant detention facility in Aurora.
"There are certainly concerns that someone will bring coronavirus into the facility. And then, once an attorney or a witness brings coronavirus into the facility, [the population is] obviously living in close proximity. And there won’t be adequate medical care," says Kristin Knudson, an immigration attorney and the local chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "If a lot of people get hit with the coronavirus at the same time, I’m not sure what that’s going to look like. I’m definitely concerned."
On March 18, Knudson's organization sent a letter to Colorado ICE officials with a series of demands to help prevent coronavirus from spreading. Among other things, the lawyers' group is asking ICE to stop in-person check-ins, release vulnerable populations from the immigrant detention facility in Aurora, and place ankle monitors on new arrestees rather than detain them at the facility.
A local ICE prosecutor also thinks that ICE should consider releasing certain detainees from that facility. "There’s the immediate humanitarian concerns about people who are over sixty or suffer from health concerns. Those people should be released," says the lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous.
Right now, ten detainees who were exposed to a lawyer who possibly has COVID-19 are under quarantine at the Aurora facility, which has faced allegations of medical neglect before and experienced mumps, chicken pox and scabies outbreaks in the past.
So far, the federal government hasn't documented any confirmed COVID-19 cases within its detained immigrant population.
On March 17, the Department of Justice announced the postponement of all non-detained immigration court dockets, so hearings are no longer happening in immigration court in Denver. The detained court located within the Aurora facility, however, remains operational, much to the dismay of local attorneys, immigration judges and prosecutors.
On March 18, ICE announced that it will now "focus enforcement on public safety risks and individuals subject to mandatory detention based on criminal grounds. For those individuals who do not fall into these categories, [ICE] will exercise discretion to delay enforcement actions until after the crisis or utilize alternatives to detention, as appropriate."
But ICE has not announced any directive regarding possible parole for vulnerable populations in detention.
Congressman Jason Crow, a Democrat from Aurora who is self-quarantining due to possible COVID-19 exposure, has also sent a letter to local ICE officials, asking a series of questions about the Aurora detention facility's readiness to handle coronavirus spread among detainees.
"We know detention centers like the Aurora ICE facility are at an extremely high risk for virus spread. Should a detainee contract the coronavirus, it would present a huge risk to the health and well-being of the detainees, the facility staff and their families, as well as the public health as a whole," Crow says.
Since none of the ten detainees under quarantine are exhibiting symptoms, they don't fall under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention criteria for testing, according to Alethea Smock, a local spokesperson for ICE.
Smock did not answer questions about whether the detention facility actually has tests in its possession.
Westword also reached out to a spokesperson for GEO Group to ask the same questions. That spokesperson deferred to ICE.
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