LOS ANGELES/NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Cuban asylum seeker with breast cancer who has been detained since November is among dozens of people seeking to be released by U.S. immigration authorities amid fears that the coronavirus could spread quickly in densely populated detention facilities.
In her four months in immigration detention, the 39-year-old woman has contracted flu and numerous infections and was recently transferred to a detention facility in rural Louisiana, her attorney wrote in a request to federal immigration authorities for what is known as humanitarian parole.
Attorneys are scrambling to file petitions like hers around the country asking U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials and courts to grant discretionary release and reconsideration of bond denials based on an elevated risk to the detained immigrants of contracting COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
The immigrants are seeking to be released in the United States while they pursue asylum and other claims to avoid being returned to their home countries.
“The effect of her exposure to this virus could be deadly given what little information we have about how to treat and control this outbreak,” Linda Corchado, the Cuban asylum seeker’s lawyer, wrote in her parole request.
Corchado noted that her client had entered the country legally at a port of entry seeking safe haven in the United States and has family in Florida.
The global spread of the virus has shown that people who are elderly or have serious underlying health conditions are particularly vulnerable to serious illness or death from COVID-19.
Las Americas, Corchado’s organization based in El Paso, Texas, is working with other non-profit groups to file some 60 parole requests, Corchado said, including for a pregnant woman, a man in his late 30s with diabetes and a 55-year-old woman with unspecified underlying health issues.
Other organizations and individual lawyers around the country told Reuters they are pursuing similar bids to free detained immigrants. For example, an attorney at the Brooklyn Defenders legal aid group in New York said it was filing dozens of petitions for release based on the risk of coronavirus.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued ICE in federal court on Monday in Washington state seeking the release of nine medically vulnerable detainees in Tacoma, an area hard hit by the outbreak.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s hardline policies toward immigration have been a hallmark of his presidency and his bid for re-election this year. His administration has sought to detain more people in the country illegally.
ICE said on Monday no COVID-19 cases have been detected among the 38,500 people in immigration detention in more than 200 facilities around the United States. An ICE spokeswoman said the agency is working with state and local partners to determine if further testing or monitoring is needed. As of March 3, only four immigrants in ICE custody had met the criteria for testing for the virus, according to the agency, which did not provide updated details on Monday.
Immigrant advocates and public health experts have expressed concern about the potential for the virus spread among incarcerated populations. ICE said on Monday a staff member at one of the facilities where immigrants are being held, the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey, was being tested for the virus and was under self-quarantine.
Current and former U.S. immigration officials and healthcare workers who were involved in an effort to contain a mumps outbreak in ICE detention centers last year said they are concerned about the agency’s ability to handle potential coronavirus outbreaks.
More than 2,000 immigration detainees were quarantined after mumps and other infectious diseases spread to nearly 900 people in 57 detention centers in 19 states between September 2018 and August 2019. A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that 84% of those people were infected within government facilities.
The adequacy of medical quarantine in these facilities came under scrutiny even before the emergence of the coronavirus. Reuters reported this month that federal inspectors found quarantine measures at a detention center in rural New Mexico that experienced a mumps outbreak were inadequate, among other deficiencies in healthcare there.
Reporting by Kristina Cooke in Los Angeles and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Additional Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Ross Colvin and Will Dunham