In-Person Legal Services at Immigrant Detention Center Halted by Outbreak

Immigration and Customs Enforcement Center

A recent COVID-19 outbreak in the detained population at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility has caused legal service providers to halt plans to reenter the facility. Attorneys and volunteers for the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network say the past year has provided many challenges for their ability to provide service to clients in detention — ranging from lockdowns to outbreaks, communication, visitation coordination and even going to court. The newest restrictions, arising from the outbreak, are just one more thing.

“Any time people are in quarantine, that kind of just presses pause on everything they’re able to do — whether it’s go to court or have an interview with the Asylum Office,” said Laura Lunn, managing attorney of RMIAN’s detention program.

According to ICE, the Aurora detention center recently saw a COVID-19 outbreak infecting . The facility has used the same procedures to mitigate the spread of the virus that it has used throughout 2020. All new detainees are tested at intake for COVID-19, and new arrivals are kept separate from the general population for 14 days and are monitored for symptoms.

ICE and other governmental and judicial groups have looked into ways to assure social distancing between detainees and to limit spread of the virus, and, as a result, ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations concluded the population of all detention facilities should be reduced to 70% of capacity or less to increase social distancing. ICE also suggests increasing social distancing by staggering meal and recreation times.

The agency has also temporarily suspended social visitations to all detention facilities but has requested wardens and administrators to maximize detainee use of teleconferencing, video visitation by apps, email and/or tablets with extended hours when possible. Legal visitation “must continue” unless it is determined to be a risk to the safety and security of the facility. Video teleconferencing meetings or confidential phone calls are available upon request to legal representatives of those in ICE custody.

While some of RMIAN’s staff have been vaccinated with the intention of continuing to physically visit the facility and serve clients in person, but, with the current outbreak and a recent influx of detainees, those steps have stopped. “It’s a really hard paradigm,” Lunn said of the visitation limitations.

As for detainees, ICE has been offering vaccines at the Aurora Facility since April 8, according to Lunn. However, some detainees might not accept vaccinations due to On top of that, a large influx of detainees transferred from other states caused further concerns for those asylees who came to the country without contracting the virus — that they might end up exposed to it in detention.

Part of RMIAN’s decision to stop having attorneys visit the facility is based on scientific uncertainties surrounding the virus for those who are vaccinated and what risks vaccinated individuals pose for spreading COVID-19 to unvaccinated people, Lunn said.

“We’ve kind of backtracked on trying to do larger scale legal services in-person,” she added. Now, the focus has shifted to using other means of connecting to clients.

As has been the case throughout the pandemic, Lunn said RMIAN provides services such as know-your-rights presentations for detainees. Lunn said the organization has never had to face this number of people coming in at once and only speaking to them individually via the phone rather than through a group presentation.

In terms of videoconferencing, Lunn said she felt uncertain about options. While the facility has rolled out a program for communicating with detainees via the WebEx platform, lbut video communication options are not always available, Lunn said. She added that hopefully the video communication option would be available, especially in court proceedings for detainees, where body language and the ability to observe and read both the judge and opposing counsel, which can play an important part in cases.

Lunn said she hopes videoconference options will be available in the future as well, not just during the pandemic, since RMIAN’s past access to the facility has also been limited due to other public health risks. However, she said in-person interaction and court operations were necessary aspects she hopes to get back to soon.

In talking with other legal service providers around the nation, Lunn said that detained population numbers continue to rise. What the future will be for detainee population numbers in facilities is a “really big question mark,” Lunn said.

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