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Epidemiologists and Medical Experts Highlight “Ticking Time Bomb” of COVID-19 in Immigration Detention Facilities

A recording of the media briefing is available here.

Earlier today, medical and human rights experts held a press briefing to discuss the grave dangers of holding immigrants in detention centers. The threat of the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the increased health risk that immigrants held in congregate settings face. Despite warnings from public health experts, the Trump administration and governors have failed to act to address the crisis brewing in detention centers nationwide. The continued detention of immigrants during this crisis is irresponsible and puts everyone at risk, and the devastating implications this could have for American communities cannot be overstated.

Dr. Chris Beyrer, Professor of Epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said:

“This is why epidemiologists and public health advocates are so concerned about people in detention and COVID-19: there is a long history of outbreaks in prison and detention facilities. Social distancing is enormously challenging in detention facilities because they are crowded, with shared dorm-like living quarters. Poor hygiene is another concern; practicing good hygiene plays a huge role in the reduction of the disease, and it is a real challenge in detention facilities. People often believe that epidemics can be contained in these detention facilities, but roughly 50-50 of staff going in and out of facilities can transmit the diseases. There is no way to protect people inside and in the surrounding communities from the exposure. For all of those reasons, we want to reduce overcrowding and stop detaining people who don’t need to be detained, before we start to see a more extensive spread of this disease.”

Dr. Josiah Rich, Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at Brown University, and whistleblower represented by the Government Accountability Project, said:

“Social distancing is essential to slow the spread of the coronavirus, but social distancing is not possible in congregate settings like immigration detention facilities. These facilities create enormous public health risks, not only because disease can spread so quickly, but because those who contract COVID-19 and who require medical intervention will need to be treated at local hospitals, overwhelming the already-overburdened treatment facilities and increasing the risk of infection to the public at large. Screening, isolating, and quarantining at this stage of the pandemic — ICE’s primary response to date — is not enough, and is frankly too late, to control the spread of COVID-19.”

Dr. Ranit MishoriSenior Medical Advisor at Physicians for Human Rights and Professor of Family Medicine at Georgetown University, said:

“Community-based alternatives to immigration detention are a feasible, practical, and rights-respecting solution. Amid a pandemic, release on parole will save the lives of immigrants, facility staff, their families, and the broader public. Otherwise, the insistence on holding immigrants in detention makes these facilities ticking time bombs that will only spread the virus farther, both inside and outside of facility walls.”

Silky Shah, Executive Director at Detention Watch Network, said:

“The continued incarceration of people during this time is only going to exacerbate the impact of the virus. And by holding people in ICE detention specifically and subjecting them to an environment in which infectious diseases are known to thrive, this administration is prioritizing its anti-immigrant agenda over the wellbeing and survival of those in its custody, in addition to those working at detention centers and jails across the country. This puts us all at risk.”

Mr. Alfred Aboya, International Basketball Coach (NBA G-League), Former Basketball Player (UCLA), and Ambassador for #AdvocateForDetainees, A Project of the Cameroon American Council, said:

“The NBA basketball season is now suspended due to COVID19, and, as a professional in the NBA’s G-League, I now have more time to #AdvocateForDetainees. Detainees like my fellow Cameroonian, currently detained in California, Elvira. She is a 26-year-old young mom who fled five armed conflicts in Cameroon. She trekked through eight Latin American countries to the U.S.-Mexico Border, only to face detention and deportation. Elvira was hoping to find asylum here. Instead, she has been detained since 2017. While in detention, she contracted Hepatitis A. Elvira is also asthmatic, has high blood pressure, and, per CDC’s guidelines, she is at high risk for COVID-19. That’s why I join the Cameroon American Council’s #AdvocateForDetainees to lift our petition for Elvira’s immediate release. Elvira’s story is not the only case I am worried about – 100+ Cameroonian women detained in Texas protested about medical negligence. So did 40+ Cameroonian men who went on hunger strike in Louisiana. I call on everybody to please join me and ask for the immediate release of Elvira and other immigrant detainees. We need action.”

Eleanor Acer, Senior Director for Refugee Protection, Human Rights First, said:

“The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and ICE have been repeatedly warned of the dangers of a failure to release immigrants and asylum seekers from detention facilities. This failure to act is a recipe for disaster, and, if steps are not taken immediately, many more asylum seekers, immigrants, and the communities surrounding these facilities will suffer. DHS and ICE cannot escape responsibility by continuing to point to CDC guidance. State governors must press for ICE releases to protect their communities from the health impacts of ICE’s failure to act.”

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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