ICE Pressured to Release Detainees After Possible Aurora Outbreak

More than 60,000 current and former detainees of the Aurora ICE Processing Center won class certification at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this month. / LAW WEEK FILE

According to representatives from the American Immigration Lawyers Association, there is a COVID-19 outbreak among detainees and staff at the Aurora immigrant detention center. However, it is unclear just how bad it is.

At a string of press conferences last week, lawyers, doctors and immigrant advocates raised alarms about conflicts in the numbers of reported COVID-19 cases in the detainee population at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility. In response, they are calling for detainees’ release for the sake of public health and safety, and some say they are concerned that continued detainment could be a death sentence.

The Colorado People’s Association are also urging ICE to release all detainees at the facility for humanitarian reasons after the recent “spike” in COVID-19 cases, according to a press release from the association. “The current COVID-19 outbreak and past outbreaks of mumps, chicken pox and scabies are direct results of entrusting a corporation to care for the lives of folks inside of the facility.”

However, the number of cases is not clear, based on public information from different sources.

Nicole Murad, the Colorado executive committee chair of AILA, said public information from ICE regarding COVID cases is confusing. Last week, the Colorado Department for Public Health and Environment reported 91 active positive cases at the Aurora facility, including 13 staff members. However, that same day, in a report to U.S. Rep. Jason Crow’s office, ICE reported 34 detainees and two staff were currently infected. 

“These numbers are confusing at best, and we’re asking for more transparency and accountability,” Murad said. 

However, according to Alethea Smock, ICE public affairs officer, the ICE employees and detainees, not other individuals who may be in the facility. The U.S. Marshals Service also operates out of the facility. Further, ICE’s most up-to-date numbers are posted directly on their website “Credible sources have indicated to us that the infection rates at the civil detention center could be as high as 25 to 30% of the population, based on the massive spike in the last few weeks,” she said.

AILA of Colorado reached out to ICE to address the discrepancies directly and address detainee care, Murad said, but “ICE has declined to respond to us.” She added that “pending litigation” was used as a reason to not provide information.

The current outbreak is in the detainee and the staff population, Murad said. Staff entering and exiting the facility and detainees being transferred in and out, provide a constant new source of kindling to stoke “the COVID-19 fire,” in turn proposing a “severe threat” to the safety of communities. At current transmission rates, ICUs in the Denver area could be full by December — not including the number of cases at the Aurora facility, she said.

“This affects every single person in Colorado, in the Front Range, and beyond,” Murad said. “Because as these people get sick, they will be coming to our hospitals — which will be overwhelming to our local health institutions.”

Dr. Carlos Franco-Paredes, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Division of Infectious Diseases, said at an Oct. 26 press conference he has been inspecting jails, prisons and juvenile detention centers across the country. His work has brought him into contact and treatment at the Aurora facility, and he said there is an “ongoing outbreak at the facility.”

He said that according to Colorado Department for Public Health and the Environment reports and personal accounts, the precise number of cases within the Aurora facility is difficult to know. As a doctor and epidemiologist, he said the focus should not be on the amount of cases but the fact there is an outbreak. And if there is an outbreak happening in Aurora now, similar to others around the nation, and with mitigation efforts already in place, the reality is that the “only way to protect people who have medical vulnerabilities … from dying of COVID-19 is by releasing them.”

The rate of transmission within the detention center, due to a concoction of causes such as poor ventilation, limited social distancing space and others, is a challenge to protect those inside, Franco-Paredes said.

“Now, this is a constitutional mandate to protect them, from a legal perspective,” he said. “And then from a public health perspective, we should do more — and when I talk about more, it’s not necessarily getting more masks or more soap — because we know that’s insufficient to protect them.”

At a separate press conference on Thursday, Franco-Paredes said many detainees at the Aurora facility are people who have high risk factors.

He again said that the exact number of positive cases is unknown due to differences in how cases are reported, however, he said there is a clear peak in the number of cases. He also mentioned that knowing that precise number would help better understand the outbreak. 

He also said he wished for more details and transparency on how these cases are being treated.  “It’s hard to know what is happening with these patients and these cases,” Franco-Paredes said. Many of the patients have a risk of death from complications.

For instance, at an Oct. 26 Colorado People’s Alliance press conference, a detainee referred to only as “Edwin,” who spoke Spanish, described over the phone what his medical care looked like after testing positive for the virus. He said that when requesting medication, all the detainees received was a single pill of Aspirin for headaches and don’t see medical help until days later.

In a statement, ICE said comprehensive medical care is provided to all individuals in custody, including a staff of registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, mental health providers, physicians’ assistants, dental care and access to 24-hour emergency care. The health, safety and welfare of ICE detainees is one of the agency’s highest priorities, according to the statement. Since the onset of COVID-19 reports, ICE epidemiologists “have been tracking the outbreak, regularly updating infection prevention and control protocols, and issuing guidance to the ICE Health Service Corps staff for the screening and management of potential exposure among detainees.”

ICE is also refusing to comply with court orders, Murad said. Two federal court orders, known as the Fraihat orders, ordered ICE to perform a “meaningful review and release” of detainees for those considered high risk, in addition to providing further standards of care for detainees.

Liz Jordan, the director of the Immigration Detention Accountability Project at the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center, is counsel in Fraihat v. ICE Community Resources. The case is a systemic challenge to ICE’s medical care practices and was filed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Jordan said. The failure of ICE to respond to the medical needs of those in their custody had colored their failure to handle the COVID-19 outbreak.

In Fraihat v. ICE Community Resources, a California federal district court granting a nationwide preliminary injunction requiring ICE to take steps to protect the medically vulnerable in its custody from the coronavirus. In the grant, the court noted the relief would be extended to all detainees with risk factors regardless of whether they had submitted requests for parole, petition for habeas relief, or other relief — or had those requests denied.

“I will mention that this case challenges the entire detention system and is applicable to Aurora,” she said. “But,what’s happening at Aurora is unfortunately not unique — and the ICE detention system as a whole is putting lives at risk.”

Jordan said that all facilities like jails, detention centers and prisons are “congregate settings” and are inherently dangerous for disease, and that ICE has had a history of infectious disease outbreaks in the past in their facilities. In the same October order, the judge ordered the elimination of solitary confinement as quarantine.

“And much of what we’re talking about today, in our opinion, was preventable if ICE had taken steps earlier,” she said.

— Avery Martinez

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