Immigrant detention center in North Texas erupts in COVID-19 cases

Two dozen immigrant detainees have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Prairieland detention center southwest of Dallas, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Monday evening.

Previously, ICE had confirmed there were three cases at the immigrant detention center about 40 minutes’ drive from Dallas. The increase came as ICE said that the number of infected detainees nationwide has nearly doubled to 220 people from a few days ago.

The detention center holds about 700 people and is operated for ICE by the private firm LaSalle Corrections. LaSalle didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Health experts and legal advocacy groups have warned for weeks that the U.S. immigrant detention centers are petri dishes for infection because of the close quarters. About three dozen lawsuits have been filed around the nation to try to win the release of immigrants thought to be particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 disease.

Monday evening, as attention on dangers at the immigration detention centers widened, a California federal judge ordered ICE to review detainees for “risk factors,” finding that plaintiffs are likely to succeed on a medical indifference claim in numerous suits aimed at getting immigrants released.

“These measures shall remain in place as long as COVID-19 poses a substantial threat of harm,” wrote the federal district judge, Jesus G. Bernal.

Bernal said the defendants had “likely exhibited callous indifference to the safety and wellbeing” of those detainees covered by the suit. The evidence suggests systemwide inaction that goes beyond a mere “difference of medical opinion or negligence,” Bernal wrote. The case cited conditions in detention centers in Texas, but didn’t name Prairieland specifically, and in Louisiana, Georgia, Colorado, California and Alabama.

That case was brought by multiple parties, including the Southern Poverty Law Center and legal specialists in disability rights. Detainees at risk include those over 55 years of age and those who suffer from chronic health conditions.

ICE has released fewer than 700 vulnerable individuals after many suits around U.S., including in TX.
Acting ICE Dir. Albence said only 400 detainees have been tested, but 32 k are detained. Also ICE doesn’t routinely test detainees before deporting them—all per oversight com.👇🏽

— Dianne Solis (@disolis) April 18, 2020

Other suits have attempted smaller remedies. They include one most recently filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Texas Civil Rights Project, as well as private attorneys on behalf of detainees in South Texas immigration detention facilities.

Monday, Philadelphia attorney Wayne Sachs said three of his clients had been transferred from a county jail to Prairieland and that two had tested positive for COVID-19. “All are over 40 and are high-risk,” Sachs said.

Margarita Carcamo, the sister of one of his Nicaraguan clients, said she had spoken to her brother in Prairieland and that he said he wasn’t being segregated and had COVID-19.

“He says he is not isolated and is surrounded by other cellmates,” said Carcamo, who is a laid-off medical assistant. “They don’t have masks.”

Carcamo, who wants her brother released so that his family can care for him, said they fear he could die in the detention center.

“I would like him at home rather than a jail cell,” she said. “We have other family members who are willing to get him. I know they are not going to give him proper care.”

In Dallas, immigration attorney Vinesh Patel said he, too, had been told of dozens of immigrants being transferred to Prairieland recently. He is trying to get the release of his two clients from the Alvarado facility.

“The outbreak isn’t surprising given that ICE very recently transferred into [Prairieland] over 80 detainees from COVID-19 hotspots across the U.S.,” Patel said. Two other attorneys have also said several detainees have been recently transferred to Prairieland.

“The best way to protect the community is to lower the jail population, and thereby reduce the chance of community spread and reduce the strain on health care resources,” Patel said. “If ICE claims the detainees at PDC are dangerous, then why do I have a client in there whose only conviction is for Class C misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia?”

Folks from the Fort Worth and Dallas areas are also getting ready to drive to Prairieland Detention Center.

Time is of the essence. We have to act NOW before the virus starts taking lives in detention centers. #FreeThemAll

— RAICES (@RAICESTEXAS) April 19, 2020

Last Friday, a House oversight committee said in a news release that the acting ICE director had testified that fewer than 700 immigrants had been released from ICE custody amid coronavirus worries. About 32,000 immigrants are in ICE detention as of April 11, according to the ICE website.

The Buffalo federal detention facility in Batavia, N.Y., now has the most confirmed COVID-19 cases at 45, ICE said. A detention facility in Monroe, La., and a facility in the San Diego area both have 20 COVID-19 positive detainees at each site.

Tensions have risen steadily over the danger immigrants might face in the closely confined spaces of detention centers. Sunday, a protest of honking cars went to Prairieland, with placards hanging off the vehicles. One read: “Free the detained from COVID-19.

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