Mar 26, 2020 1:30 PM

Trump administration urged to free migrants as virus surges

Posted Mar 26, 2020 1:30 PM
Image courtesy U.S. Office of Homeland Security
Image courtesy U.S. Office of Homeland Security

WASHINGTON (AP) — Pressure was mounting on the Trump administration Wednesday to release people from immigration detention facilities where at least one detainee has tested positive for COVID-19 and advocates fear tight quarters and overall conditions could cause rapid spread of the virus.

The U.S. holds around 37,000 people in immigration detention. Detainees and advocates say many are vulnerable because of age and pre-existing medical conditions, and because they are often held in open rooms, beds 3-feet apart, and without adequate supplies of masks or other protections.

“It’s impossible to stay calm,” said Marco Battistotti, an Italian who is among 170 people detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Bristol County jail in Massachusetts. “People are panicking. People are in fear.”

The 54-year-old Battistotti was among about 100 detainees at the county jail near Cape Cod who signed a letter released by a local immigration lawyer detailing conditions inside. They asked to be released to await decisions on their immigration cases.

“I don’t want to die in an ICE jail,” he said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. “Why can’t I fight my case on the outside?”

The agency, which reported the positive test of a 31-year-old man from Mexico held in Bergen County, New Jersey, on Tuesday, has announced steps to protect detained migrants and staff from the virus, but hasn’t said whether it plans to review cases for possible release because of the outbreak. It did not immediately respond to a request to comment on the complaints about conditions from the detainees and their advocates.

The administration has tried to balance its overall hard line on immigration, a signature policy of President Donald Trump, and its response to the outbreak, with ICE announcing previously that it would “temporarily adjust” operations to focus on apprehending people who pose a risk to public safety or are subject to mandatory detention because of a criminal record.

Immigrant advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, are filing lawsuits in California, Maryland, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, seeking court orders for the immediate release of people in immigration detention, especially those at risk because of their age or medical conditions.

It’s unclear how many detainees overall are at higher risk, but one California suit alone had 13 plaintiffs, all over 55.

A panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Monday, citing the “rapidly escalating public health crisis,” ordered the immediate release of a 37-year-old woman who is fighting deportation to Mexico.

The woman’s lawyer, Max Carter-Oberstone, said the government told him it would not oppose the decision, which the court took on its own initiative in a rare move on behalf of a woman who he says has been threatened with death by members of a Mexican drug cartel.

“It wasn’t something we asked for or were expecting,” Carter-Oberstone said. “The court is clearly reacting to the greater public health crisis that we’re in right now and re-evaluating how it’s going to dispose of its immigration cases in light of that crisis that we’re all experiencing.”

The situation in immigration detention, which include facilities run by local jurisdictions and private contractors, is similar to that facing jails and prisons, with staff also at risk from a virus that already has sickened at least 55,000 people and killed about 800 in the U.S.

One difference is that more than half of ICE detainees have no criminal charges or conviction and are held only for immigration reasons. Under previous administrations, many would likely have been released on bond as they pursued their cases.

ICE has reported one positive test of an employee at a detention facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and 18 confirmed cases among staff not involved in detaining migrants. A contractor reported a positive case of a staff member at a facility in Harris County, Texas. The agency says it is screening new detainees and isolating detainees who show symptoms of the coronavirus disease.

Detainees say those measures won’t do much, with people staying in dorm-like bays with no social distancing possible or in smaller rooms that they sometimes have to clean themselves, with insufficient cleaning supplies.

Francisca Morales Diaz, a 45-year-old from Mexico who was released Friday from an ICE detention center in Louisiana, said she and others were issued soap and toilet paper for their own use once a week and they would run out. When they complained, she says they were told there were shortages on the outside as well.

“There isn’t enough medicine. It’s not well-maintained,” Morales told AP. Her fear is that “at any moment, they’re going to come and take me back there.”

Ira Alkalay, a lawyer representing some of the detainees at the jail near Cape Cod, said the detainees are responsible for cleaning their unit, which includes a dining area and bathrooms, but aren’t even given bleach. Some who signed the letter suffer from respiratory ailments such as tuberculosis, emphysema and asthma that put them at higher risk to the virus.

“These are not sanitary conditions at all,” Alkalay said. “If the virus is introduced, many people could get sick all at once. Hospitals in the area can become quickly overwhelmed.”

The office of Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, who has made headlines for offering to send the jail’s ICE detainees to help build Trump’s promised border wall, has stressed there are currently no confirmed or suspected cases of the virus at the facility.

“We suspect these detainees are working with outside political activist groups to use the coronavirus crisis to advance their political agenda,” the sheriff’s spokesman, Jonathan Darling, said this week.

Eunice Cho, an ACLU lawyer, said the confined spaces and limited medical treatment in many immigration jails made them especially vulnerable — and if the virus spreads through one facility, the number of sick people who would require advanced care could overwhelm area hospitals. Many ICE jails are in rural areas with smaller hospitals.

“This is closely related to the public health of our entire community,” Cho said.

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Mar 26, 2020 1:30 PM
UPDATE: What Kansans need to know about the COVID-19 coronavirus
Health officials say one way to stop the spread of the new coronavirus is to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. Celia Llopis-Jepsen / Kansas News Service

Kansas News Service

The new coronavirus is spreading quickly around the world, including across Kansas, and setting off a range of responses.

The Kansas News Service is boiling down key developments in the state and updating the status regularly here. To read this information in Spanish, go here. This list was last updated at 2:10 p.m. March 31.

CASES AND DEATHS

430 cases, including two from out of state (see map for counties)

9 deaths (4 in Wyandotte County, 3 in Johnson County, 1 each in Sedgwick and Crawford counties)

NOTE: These figures only include cases confirmed with lab tests and do not represent the real, unknown total. Community transmission is occurring in parts of Kansas.

STATEWIDE ORDER TO STAY HOME

Gov. Laura Kelly is instituting a statewide stay-at-home order as of 12:01 a.m. March 30. It will last until at least April 19. Stay-at-home orders allow people to take care of essential activities (such as grocery shopping or going to work) as well as exercise outside, but otherwise keep to themselves. 

The state’s stay-at-home order supersedes at least 13 county-by-county orders. Should the state’s order lift before a county’s is through, the county can choose to keep its own in effect.

SHOULD I SELF-QUARANTINE?

For the whole state: The Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) is now mandating home quarantine for 14 days if you've traveled to the places listed below. If you come down with symptoms (such as a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher, coughing or shortness of breath) during those 14 days, contact your health care provider and explain your potential COVID-19 exposure.  

  1. Louisiana or anywhere in Colorado on or after March 27.
  2. States with known widespread community transmission (California, Florida, New York and Washington) on or after March 15.
  3. Illinois or New Jersey on or after March 23.
  4. Eagle, Summit, Pitkin and Gunnison counties in Colorado (if your visit was March 8th or later).
  5. Cruise ships or river cruises on or after March 15. Anyone previously told to quarantine because of their cruise ship travel should also finish out their quarantine.
  6. International destinations on or after March 15. Anyone previously told to quarantine because of their international travel should also finish out their quarantine.

TESTING AVAILABILITY

As of March 27, Kansas health secretary Lee Norman said the state lab was handling 175 samples a day. But Kansas will receive more equipment within about a week that will let it handle 700 to 1,000 samples daily, though shortages of specialized supplies such as nose swabs may still hamper work at times. 

Norman said there’s enough capacity in the state, now that testing has ramped up through commercial labs and hospitals. State testing is reserved for high-risk groups, such as sick nursing home residents and health care workers. Others can ask their doctor or nurse practitioner to order through private labs.

What Kansas still lacks is enough testing material to study COVID-19 rates among people without symptoms.

KANSAS HAS DECLARED A STATE OF EMERGENCY. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

It gives the state government more power to marshal resources and triggers the state's response plan. The state Legislature has extended Kelly's declaration through May (and can extend it), with the aim of giving her the ability to make certain decisions when lawmakers aren’t in session.

On March 22, Kelly eased state rules to expand the use of telemedicine, to temporarily license more health workers and to allow heavier trucks on Kansas highways hauling relief supplies. On March 23, she ordered a ban on evictions if a tenant was unable to pay because of the coronavirus crisis. And she extended the income tax filing deadline to July 15, in line with a delay for filing federal tax forms.

HOW ARE UNIVERSITIES RESPONDING?

K-State, University of Kansas and Wichita State: All of them will go fully online for the end of the school year. Students at K-State and KU will need special exemptions to remain in dorms.

Other colleges: Washburn and Fort Hays State are online. Newman University expanded spring break for two weeks (March 14 to March 29). Johnson County Community College will close campus from March 14-29, and all courses will restart online March 30. Pittsburg State started break a day early and will resume classes indefinitely online on March 30.

HOW ABOUT K-12 SCHOOLS?

Gov. Laura Kelly and Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson have shut down all K-12 schools, public, private and parochial, for the rest of the 2019-20 school year. They had initially issued a strong recommendation that schools close March 16 through 20. 

Some county health departments had already issued similar orders. 

A Kansas State Department of Education task force has issued guidance to school districts on how to continue some amount of student learning. 

WHAT’S BEEN CANCELED OR SUSPENDED?

The governor’s executive order temporarily banning landlords from evicting businesses or residential tenants is effective until May 1. That same order put in a moratorium on any mortgage foreclosures through the same period.

The governor mandated on March 23, through an executive order, that gatherings be restricted to less than 10 people.

Kansas state workers: Access to the Statehouse is limited to official business only, and lawmakers went on break early. Kelly wanted most state employees to stay home for at least two weeks starting March 23.

State prisons: The Kansas Department of Corrections ended visitation at all state facilities, and will “re-evaluate on an ongoing basis.” It urges families to talk to inmates through email, phone calls and video visits. 

Electric companies: Evergy, which serves 950,000 customers in Kansas, will not disconnect residential or business services for an unspecified amount of time due to the “unprecedented challenge” of coronavirus that “may result in customers facing unexpected or unusual financial strain.”

Casinos: All four state-owned gaming facilities will close at the end of business on March 17, and remain so until at least March 30.

Public events: Many events and public places around the state have been canceled until at least the end of March. 

Sports: The Kansas State High School Athletics Association canceled the state basketball tournament midway through it. And the Big 12 suspended spring sports until March 29.  

HOW BAD IS THE VIRUS? 

COVID-19 usually causes mild to moderate symptoms, like a fever or cough. Most people with mild symptoms recover in two weeks. More severe cases, found in older adults and people with health issues, can have up to six weeks’ recovery time or can lead to death.

HOW CAN YOU AVOID IT?

  1. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. Frequently.
  2. Cover your coughs.
  3. If you’re an older Kansan or medically fragile, put off any vacations and limit your trips to the grocery store or any public space.
  4. Stay home if you are sick — this goes for all ages.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON COVID-19

Kansas Department of Health and Environment: http://www.kdheks.gov/coronavirus/

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/index.html

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.