The lawsuit states that some families, as well as staffers, are already showing symptoms of COVID-19, but ICE hasn’t bothered to so much as tell people detained at Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania “about the fact that there is global pandemic or what precautions they should be taking to prevent the spread of the virus. Petitioners are aware of COVID-19 only from the news on the television. There is a note posted on the outside of the facility that misidentifies the COVID-19 pandemic as the ‘flu’ to the general public and those who enter the building.”
The Trump administration’s own guidelines tell the public to avoid crowds, wash their hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and water, and to practice social distancing, but all of this has been impossible in migrant family jails like Berks. Broken soap dispensers in rooms “have not been fixed despite their requests,” the lawsuit continues, and “Hand sanitizer is only freely provided in the lobby and legal visitation room at Berks Center—two areas that detainees are not permitted to access. Detainees are housed in shared rooms and cannot remain 6 feet apart for social distancing within the constraints of detention. Sleeping quarters are very cramped,” while the entire facility, including a staff of about 60, eat at the same time in a shared cafeteria.
The lawsuit states that medical care for sick families at South Texas Family Residential Center “is inadequate, with many detainees suffering from asthma, children reporting fevers, pregnant women receiving insufficient prenatal care, and detainees being denied evaluation for undiagnosed medical symptoms and treatment for known pre-existing conditions. Families report having to wait up until 8 hours to access medical care, and regularly waiting in lines for two to three hours to see a doctor.”
The lawsuit notes that a child died after being detained at this particular facility in 2018. “I’m here today because I don’t want another little angel to suffer like my Mariee,” her mom, Yazmin Juárez, tearfully told the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties last year. “I don’t want other mothers and fathers to lose their children. It can’t be that hard in this great country to make sure that the little children you lock up don’t die from abuse and neglect.” Following her powerful testimony, she was embraced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
It’s not a matter of if this crisis hits detention facilities, it’s a matter of how soon. ICE confirmed last week that at least two employees have tested positive for coronavirus, including one employee who works as a medical staffer at a facility in New Jersey. ProPublica has further reported that “At a suburban Denver ICE facility, the Aurora Detention Center, 10 detainees have now been quarantined for potential exposure to the coronavirus, but Colorado Independent reported that an ICE spokesperson “would not say whether the immigrants or anyone else in the detention facility has been tested for COVID-19.”
“Currently, thousands of non-citizen parents and minor children are being detained in the three [migrant family jails],” the lawsuit says. “Many mothers, fathers and children have been detained well prior to the start of the pandemic and many have recently been detained. All of the families are at risk at present, and their situation presents a grave situation, a tinderbox, that once sparked will create a crisis that threatens the lives of the women, men and children who are detained in family residential centers.” Free them now.