ICE expanding COVID-19 testing in facilities

On the heels of an unfavorable federal court ruling, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement completed voluntary COVID-19 testing at three of its jails at the end of June, according to a release from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

As of July 2, ICE officials tested nearly 280 people detained at three jails, which it calls “family residential centers” — the Karnes County Family Residential Center and the South Texas Dilley Family Residential Center; and one in Pennsylvania, the Berk’s facility.

The announcement from ICE officials about COVID-19 testing comes as a federal court has ordered the release of migrant children due to the pandemic and unsafe conditions within the facilities.

At the end of June, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ordered migrant children who had been housed at the facilities for more than 20 days be released by no later than July 17.

Gee based her order on the already-in-place Flores Settlement, established more than 20 years ago to protect children taken into custody at the southern border that was part of a class-action lawsuit first filed in 1985.

The settlement agreement, which was ruled on 12 years later in 1997, stipulated among other things how long the government can detain immigrants, dictating a 20-day maximum detention period for immigrant families.

The settlement was reached between the federal government and child welfare and legal advocates who had demanded government officials address child welfare violations within the immigration detention system that had gone unaddressed for years.

In handing down the order, Gee added it was essential for the health of those in the facilities to be released, characterizing the detention centers as being on “fire” with regard to the pandemic that has led to hundreds of positive tests within facilities.

The release from DHS states that at the end of June, medical staff tested all 278 residents, including both the general population and newly admitted families medically isolated, at the three facilities including: 13 residents at Berks, 154 residents at Dilley and 111 residents at the Karnes County Residential Center.

The results for “approximately” 40 residents at Karnes are still pending, the release stated.

Additionally, when intake testing began at the Karnes facility, 14 individuals tested positive, including 11 testing positive on June 24 and three testing positive on July 1.

“As routine protocol for newly admitted families, the residents who tested positive remain medically isolated and have not commingled with others at the facility,” the release stated.

As of July 2, the population at Berks is 13 residents; 161 at Dilley and 174 at the Karnes facility.

The release states ICE plans to continue expanding testing capabilities to other facilities across its detention network over the next few months but did not specify the facilities.

On Monday during a television appearance on Fox News, Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf, commenting on Gee’s order to release all migrant children from its jails due to the pandemic, said ICE would not allow a “jailbreak,” with regard to its facilities.

“We have a number of court cases that we’re dealing with at the moment, regarding our ICE detention facilities and how we keep individuals in detention while at the same time making sure they’re safe from COVID,” Wolf said. “We’ve reduced the number of people in our facilities down to about 70 to 75%, trying to do that social distancing and separation.”

Wolf added that the people in ICE facilities have no right to be in the country; though a majority have requested asylum, which is a legal form of relief.

“…Every individual that we return, or we repatriate back, we give them a COVID test; we try to do everything in our power to make sure that they are safe, to be transported back — so we’ll continue to do that,” Wolf said.

Wolf additionally mischaracterized Gee’s order, which orders ICE to release only the children in its “family residential centers” and not their parents in the same facilities.

“…We’re not, as some courts have asked us to do, and some activists have asked us to do, is to let everyone out of ICE detention facilities. That’s about 25,000 folks. We’re not going to do a jailbreak. That’s not what we do,” Wolf said.

Gee’s order is relegated to only the “family residential centers,” which houses only roughly 280 people currently, about 1% of the 25,000 figure Wolf stated during the interview.

Wolf added that “many” of the people in ICE detention are criminals; despite statistics that contradict this statement.

According to a report from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, in the last four years, the number of detainees with no criminal history in ICE facilities has grown from less than 40% to 64% at the end of April 2019.

The report , published in 2019, shows that beginning in March 2015, the population of detainees in ICE facilities without a conviction grew from less than 40% to more than 60% by the end of April 2019.

Gee’s order states DHS officials have until July 17 to remove all migrant children who have been detained in the facilities for more than 20 days.

Immigration advocates and attorneys for families held at the facilities have repeatedly implored ICE officials to release the families, calling their collective detention amid a pandemic “unnecessary” as ICE has the full discretion to release the families but have chosen not to do so, even as positive COVID cases mount within their facilities.

In an interview with The Monitor last week, Karla Vargas, a senior attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit immigration advocacy and human rights group, said the safest place for these detainees is at home, not in the facilities.

“If the true goal here is to ensure that the pandemic is not spreading, and public safety, then the best way to do that is to allow each of these individuals to shelter at home, in isolation, with the family members and support they have here,” Vargas said.