Florida Detention Center Quarantined, ICE Seattle Office Shut: COVID-19 and Immigration #2

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Daily Dispatch

March 11, 2020



Concerns about possible COVID-19 exposure at the Seattle Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office has led to its closure. From ICE:

Out of an abundance of caution, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement – Enforcement and Removal Operations (ICE-ERO) has temporarily closed its Seattle Field Office after an employee from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) exhibited flu-like symptoms after possible exposure to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). ICE-ERO recommends anyone who visited the Seattle Field Office, located at 12500 Tukwila International Boulevard, on or after Feb. 24 and develops flu-like symptoms should begin a self-quarantine immediately and contact local health authorities for further guidance.

Interestingly, while ICE was acting out of an “abundance of caution,” the Department of Justice put its entire unsanitized foot in its mouth yesterday by demanding that judges operating under the Executive Office for Immigration Review remove COVID-19 prevention posters from their courtrooms. Only to then back-track once the judge’s union made the order public. The backstory is illuminating. For years the union that represents immigration judges has been critical of Department of Justice rules impacting case loads. This critical posture has only grown under Trump’s DOJ, as caseloads have increased dramatically, leading the administration to establish annual quotas for judges, while also limiting judges discretion to clear their dockets. As the criticism from judges has increased, the administration has even moved to have the union nullified. 

Add pandemic and stir. Judges (like basically everybody) have grown frustrated with a lack of direction from the Department of Justice concerning COVID-19 prevention in their courts, and so unilaterally took the step of putting up posters in court waiting areas that had been distributed by the CDC. The posters outline symptoms of COVID-19 and preventative steps. The Department of Justice, which oversees immigration courts, directed court staff to take them down, seemingly, out of spite. Making clear who is in charge, acting chief immigration judge Christopher A. Santoro told court administrators

“This is just a reminder that immigration judges do not have the authority to post, or ask you to post, signage for their individual courtrooms or the waiting areas…Per our leadership, the CDC flyer is not authorized for posting in the immigration courts. If you see one (attached), please remove it. Thank you.”

Ultimately, the DOJ backed off because the email was sent out to reporters by a representative of the judges’ union, and well….once some sunlight was put on the directive, it did not look very good. 

Meanwhile, people held in immigrant detention in Florida have been quarantined out of concern for COVID-19 exposure. We wrote Monday about concerns that ICE and Customs and Border Protection were not making adequate preparations for those incarcerated in their custody. Both departments have horrible track records when it comes to the provision of health services, and thus no one is surprised that they seem unprepared. CBP did put out instructions to make more masks available. As far as anyone can tell, ICE has done nothing (though agency spokespeople continue to officially declare their concern and commitment for the people in “their care” when they issue press releases about someone who died). Back to Florida, where things are getting very real:

An ongoing quarantine in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in South Florida has raised serious questions about the agency’s preparedness for an outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

Several immigrants are being held in a special ward at the Glades County Detention Center and have been barred from receiving visitors and eating with other detainees. Last week, an undetermined number of quarantined detainees with “flu-like symptoms” were allegedly moved from the facility to a hospital to undergo testing for COVID-19, according to an attorney familiar with the situation.

Heriberto Hernandez, an immigration lawyer in Palm Beach County, represents Isaac Santos-Mojica, one of the quarantined detainees who has been providing updates from within the detention center. Santos-Mojica, originally from El Salvador, was placed under quarantine more than a week ago and says he has no idea when it will end.

Hernandez learned of the quarantine March 2 after driving two hours from his office to the Glades County Detention Center, which is in a remote area west of Lake Okeechobee. There he was informed by a jail official that Santos-Mojica was being held in the facility’s medical ward and would not be allowed to receive visitors. Hernandez, who had hoped to prepare for his client’s upcoming immigration court hearing, pressed for more information. Jail officials eventually confirmed Santos-Mojica had been quarantined for “flu-like symptoms” but did not offer any other details, Hernandez says. He spoke with his client over the phone later that evening but has not heard from him since.

It is too early to know if “exposure” will become “confirmed case.” But it is worth pointing out that the facility in question is a local jail run by the sheriffs’ office with a contract to hold detainees for ICE. There is no reference to any kind of federal policy about how to proceed. When will there be one?

Several articles have come out in the last couple of days about the impact of Trump’s immigration’s policies on public health in general and on preventative measures to contain COVID-19. Wendy Parmet of Northwestern University School of Law published an opinion piece on STAT last week. The main  thrust is that public charge rule implementation is leading to people withdrawing from Medicaid and otherwise opting out of health care services for fear of being labeled a “public charge.” In addition, the administration has refused to issue a clear directive from the Department of Homeland Security that it will not engage in enforcement actions near health centers and hospitals. The failure to clearly state that health facilities would be off limits for immigration enforcement – coupled with this administration’s willingness to engage in enforcement at hospitals – could well lead people who need screening to not get it. The Trump administration’s maintenance of the Remain in Mexico policy is also forcing people into unsanitary, crowded conditions, and could well lead to the spread of any number of diseases.

The Center for American Progress is pressing the administration on the need to declare health care centers “enforcement free zones.”

According to a letter by more than 800 public health and legal experts, one important step that the Trump administration could take to ensure that all people in the United States have the ability to seek necessary medical care—regardless of immigration status—is to issue a formal statement assuring the public that health care facilities will be “immigration enforcement-free zones” for the duration of the outbreak. Such a statement would be appropriate—and, indeed, entirely expected—under any circumstance, but it is particularly important in light of the current administration’s track record on immigration.

Echoing the call of these experts, lawmakers in both the House and Senate have urged the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—specifically U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—to suspend all immigration enforcement actions at or near hospitals or other medical facilities. Additionally, lawmakers have demanded that CBP and ICE formally announce this suspension to the public, consistent with historical practices taken during national disasters and other public health emergencies.

We’ll see if the reality of a global pandemic will move this administration to adjust course for the sake of keeping people healthy. At the moment, however, Trump seems unable to manage much other than directing people to the website of the Centers for Disease Control. Good advice – but not much of strategy.

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