Just hours after advocacy group Immigration Equality filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties demanding the release of people living with HIV from federal immigration detention amid the coronavirus public health crisis, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released a small group of LGBTQ people—including several people living with HIV—from two Arizona facilities late Monday night, advocacy group Trans Queer Pueblo told Arizona Republic.
The five people “were unloaded by ICE around midnight Monday at the Greyhound bus station in Phoenix, where they were met by representatives of Trans Queer Pueblo, said Stephanie Figgins Ramirez, a spokeswoman for the group,” Arizona Republic continued. This is a start, but a minuscule one when federal immigration officials have 44,000 people detained in unsafe and unsanitary conditions all over the U.S.
In its complaint to the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Immigration Equality highlighted the heightened risk facing detained LGBTQ people in particular, saying in a statement that “people living with HIV with a low CD4 count—which indicates a weakened immune system—are much more vulnerable to being infected with COVID-19 and more likely to suffer serious health consequences than the general population. The already extremely poor medical care in ICE detention combined with the effects of COVID-19 could lead to countless deaths of detained HIV-positive individuals.”
The complaint said advocates “routinely” receive reports about unsafe and unhygienic conditions inside detention facilities, “such as inadequate hand washing stations and lack of soap, that are particularly dangerous for immunocompromised individuals.” Even as a number of children have died in part from the flu while in federal immigration custody, Immigration Equality notes a “failure to provide HIV-appropriate medication to treat flu symptoms, such as Tamiflu or other anti-viral medication.”
“In addition to the negligent treatment experienced specifically by the Complainants, we have also received numerous accounts from individuals who are no longer in detention, but who report similar negligent care,” the complaint continued. “For example, one asylum seeker was denied HIV medication for several months. When the individual was finally referred to a doctor, their CD4 count—which essentially measures how well your immune system is functioning—had dropped dangerously low to 68. A CD4 count below 200 indicates that a person has developed AIDS. While awaiting treatment, the individual’s symptoms included, fevers, headaches, shortness of breath, vomiting, weight loss, and boils.” This is criminal negligence by officials.
“DHS has fallen so appallingly short of the Constitutionally mandated basic duty of care for people in detention that they are violating the law every day,” Bridget Crawford, legal director of Immigration Equality, said in the statement. “The accounts we have heard from detained people living with HIV have been outrageous. Some of them have gone without medication for weeks or even months. Others have been told to expect soap shortages. This is a COVID-19 nightmare.”
A nightmare that doesn’t have to be happening. ICE can do the same as the county jails that are releasing people in the criminal legal system in an effort to curb the spread of the virus, but has continued to largely resist calls. Stephanie Figgins Ramirez, the spokesperson for Trans Queer Pueblo, told Arizona Republic the released detainees “were grateful to be out, but they are extremely worried about fellow migrants still detained inside because they know just how bad the medical conditions are and they know it’s basically a death sentence to be held in an ICE facility.”