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.
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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.