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ICE's Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas is seen on June 25, 2018. Federal officials say families that have been separated following the "zero tolerance" policy will be reunited at the center. Photo by Luz Gray.

As Gov. Steve Sisolak was announcing the closure of Nevada schools on March 15, Jessica Chavez got a call from her panicked 17-year old sister — their father had been detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents while on his way to buy groceries and cleaning supplies as advised for the COVID-19 outbreak.

In an interview with The Nevada Independent on Friday, Chavez, 29, said she spoke with her father on Thursday and that he has a hearing coming up this week that she and her family hope will result in the judge granting his release on a bond.

In the meantime, she and her two siblings are worried that their father, a Las Vegas laborer who has no criminal history according to his attorney Sarah Perez, is being detained at the Henderson Detention Center in the same area as the rest of the facility's population, not just with other immigrants who have been picked up by ICE.

“He told me yesterday that they’re all mixed — so there’s criminals, and then there’s the people detained by ICE without a criminal background,” Chavez said. “I don’t see why a judge wouldn’t grant him the bond.”

The family’s distress is compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, which counts 190 confirmed cases statewide as of Sunday. Doctors contracted with the Department of Homeland Security notified lawmakers on Friday that there is an "imminent risk to the health and safety of immigrant detainees,” and to the general public and argued that the agency should consider releasing all who don’t pose a risk to public safety.

Overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and poor ventilation make detention facilities vulnerable to disease outbreaks. Medical professionals have also found the facilities to have delayed and subpar medical treatment, with not enough certified doctors on staff and lack of access to specialists.

Immigration attorneys and advocates in Las Vegas have also expressed concern about the pandemic spreading among ICE detainees — the majority of whom are eligible to complete their cases in Immigration Court using alternatives such as release on bond.

“Immigration detention is a civil system and the vast majority of ICE detainees have no violent criminal history,” UNLV Immigration Clinic attorney Paloma Guerrero said in an interview. “These are members of our communities that ICE is putting directly at risk just because they think immigration enforcement is somehow more important than public safety.”

Historically, the purpose of immigration detention was to ensure that people show up for immigration hearings and is “not meant to be punitive,” Guerrero said.

Mass detention of immigrants and asylum-seekers has not always been U.S. policy — in 1980, ICE detained fewer than 1,700 people daily. Today, the agency is detaining more than 37,000 people nationwide, including more than 400 in Nevada.

After several attorneys, law and interest groups sent a letter to officials of the ICE Salt Lake City field office on Tuesday urging the agency to suspend field operations and release non-mandatory detainees, ICE announced on Wednesday that it would delay enforcement for “those who are not public safety risks.”

Guerrero said that enforcement, not public safety, has been the top priority for the agency recently, with most of those picked up on the basis of a prior deportation.

“They’re saying that they’re enforcing cases where there is a risk of public safety [which] would mean people with criminal convictions that are violent. So a prior order of removal does not fall into that category,” she said.

The letter, which the UNLV Immigration Clinic signed, urged ICE to prioritize the release of those who are considered high health risks and asked for an update on these requests and other concerns by March 31. 

ICE Salt Lake City Field Office Director Robert Culley and Assistant Director Joe Sher did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Nevada Independent on whether they would release detainees who do not have criminal records.

Amnesty International USA and other groups sent a letter last week to Sisolak, Attorney General Aaron Ford and Department of Health and Human Services Director Richard Whitley last week, asking them to use their public health and licensing authority to reduce occupancy in facilities detaining immigrants. 

Nevada senators also are requesting the agency clarify the steps it has taken to protect detainees from COVID-19. Sens. Jacky Rosen and Catherine Cortez-Masto signed onto a letter addressed to agencies including the Department of Homeland Security, asking for an update by March 25 on what steps the agencies are taking to prevent an outbreak in detention centers.

Releasing detainees as a way to prevent COVID-19 outbreak

The Marshall Project reported on Thursday that ICE confirmed the first case of COVID-19 in an employee at a New Jersey detention center, which could be a sign of more to come.

For non-criminal offenders who are considered “low-risk” to public safety, advocates say ICE could use alternatives to detention such as phone or video check-ins.  As for the option of parole, attorneys have encountered difficulties.

Las Vegas-based immigration attorney Enedina Kassamanian said she still doesn't understand why one of her clients, an asylum seeker with high blood pressure and heart disease, was denied parole especially because his conditions and age could put him at higher risk from COVID-19. 

The lack of response from ICE about whether it will release immigrants with no criminal history troubles advocates in Nevada and across the country, who say that public health should take priority over immigration enforcement. An open letter from attorneys and ICE employees sent to the Department of Justice earlier this month urged the department to close immigration courts for two to four weeks and conduct business telephonically for the safety of staff.

The request was partially honored when the department announced the postponement of hearings for non-detained immigrants. Although the move could protect public health, it may have a negative effect on detained immigrants’ hearings, which are happening sooner and allowing them less time to build their case.

“We still have to allow people, especially when they're detained, enough time to prepare for their next hearing," Guerrero said.   

Communicating with immigration clients

A woman enters the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services building in Las Vegas on Thursday, April 5, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

In mid-March, ICE announced that it was suspending family visits to prevent visitors from bringing the coronavirus into the facilities. The precautionary measure presents challenges for friends and family members when it comes to communicating with their loved ones.  

Guerrero said that limiting family visits “makes no sense,” because family and friends do not have direct contact with the detainees in Nevada detention centers  — visits are mostly conducted in a lobby that has a barrier separating them from the detainee and conversations occur through a phone.

Some attorneys have noted that detention centers do not follow consistent protocols to screen staff who come in direct contact with detainees for potential exposure to or symptoms of COVID-19.

Attorneys who visited clients at the Henderson Detention Center in mid-March reported daily changes in visitation procedures. Kassamanian said that she visited the facility on Tuesday and was restricted to a video call with her client instead of a contact visit.

When she was let into the facility on Wednesday, though, she said she encountered three nurses and saw off to the side a “hazmat suit” (hazardous material suit) and a box, which staff confirmed was a COVID-19 test kit. Her temperature was not taken, and she had both options of a video call or contact visit.

On Friday, contact and video visits were available but she said that staff “almost forgot” to take her temperature. She reported that she was already inside when an officer called into a speaker that they still had to do so.

“If they had forgotten and I [was infected], and I went [in] for the contact visit, my client could have passed it to everyone else,” Kassamanian said in an interview on Saturday.

Kassamanian said that one of her clients reported that “nothing has changed” in his facility’s sanitation practices aside from a flyer advising hand washing being posted and not being allowed to watch news, which could mean that the detained population is largely uninformed about the state of the pandemic in the outside world.

Guerrero reports being able to make phone appointments with her clients at Nevada Southern Detention Center and conduct video calls with clients in Nye County Jail. The cost of phone calls can create a barrier for consultations with potential clients, though; she said, offering it cost her $5.75 to listen to a 13-second voicemail from a client.

On Saturday, ICE announced that legal visitors are now required to provide their own personal protective equipment — gloves, surgical masks and eye protection which doctors say is in “dire” shortage — to wear when they visit the detention centers. Kassamanian said she has yet to see these items available in the store, and she is concerned she won’t be able to do her job in light of this new requirement.

“If I cannot get the protective items I need then I do not meet the required procedural standard, therefore I’m effectively prevented from being able to communicate, get documents signed, and properly represent my client,” Kassamanian said. “The last thing any immigration attorney needs is to be charged with ineffective assistance of counsel during such a time as this.”

Preventing infection in detention centers

CoreCivic ICE Detention Center
CoreCivic's Houston Processing Center, an ICE detention center in Houston, Texas, is seen on June 24, 2018. Photo by Patrick Feller via Flickr Creative Commons:

Amanda Gilchrist, director of public affairs for CoreCivic, the private company that operates the Nevada Southern Detention Center, said in an email on Friday that the facility’s staff are being screened for exposure to or symptoms of the virus by taking their temperature and logging travel history to known areas where there has been an outbreak of COVID-19 cases.

Gilchrist added that employees have been required to adhere to recommendations including avoiding close contact with people who are sick, avoiding touching their faces and frequent, thorough hand-washing.

ICE said on its website that its testing for the virus complies with Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines that advise testing persons with COVID-19 symptoms and recommends monitoring those who have had potential exposure.

The website also acknowledges that home-isolation recommended by the CDC is not always practicable in its facilities, so some facilities use “cohorting” or housing detainees with similar symptoms in the same rooms or areas, as an alternative.

According to ICE’s website, if someone exhibits fever or respiratory symptoms and meets CDC criteria for risk of exposure, ICE Health Service Corps should isolate and observe them for a “specified time period” in a single medical housing room, or in a “medical airborne infection isolation room designed to contain biological agents.”

A report by CBS News found that out of the 20 detention facilities overseen by ICE's Health Service Corps, 16 have airborne infection isolation rooms.

Gilchrist said that the “majority” of facilities owned by CoreCivic have at least one of these types of rooms, but advocates believe that there are not enough to abide by social distancing and isolation guidelines in the event of an outbreak of COVID-19, which they say is only a matter of time.

Attorneys in Texas and New York have reported that detainees are being confined to cells for long periods of time with roommates and a toilet in the cell, without sufficient hand-washing or cleaning supplies to adhere to coronavirus prevention practices. 

Advocacy groups continue to urge public officials to do everything they can to release detainees who are eligible for alternative methods of detention, and bring incarceration levels down to a level that would be more manageable in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak in the facilities.

In the White House’s emergency coronavirus budget request sent to Congress on Tuesday, it asked for $249 million to convert border facilities including family detention centers into dedicated quarantine facilities, increase ICE capabilities to administer alternatives to detention, enhance janitorial services and provide protective equipment to staff. 

This story was updated at 10:12 a.m. to correct that officers did not take Kassamanian's temperature when she visited Henderson Detention Center on Wednesday, and she had the option of doing a contact visit with her client as well as a video call.

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