As Texas faces a massive surge of COVID-19 cases and increasing criticism from public health experts for having opened too early and too quickly, Houston has been at the forefront of the outbreak.
Hospitals in the state’s most populous city are quickly running out of beds—including Texas Medical Center, the largest hospital in the world, where ICU beds were at more than 99 percent normal capacity on Thursday—as the number of confirmed cases in the state have begun an “exponential rise.”
Public health experts have maintained that Houston’s hospitals are well equipped to handle hospitalizations in the near term, but in an overcrowded immigrant detention facility in the nearby city of Conroe, there are no such assurances.
Out of 272 detainees at the Joe Corley Detention Center, a privately owned immigrant detention center roughly 45 minutes north of Houston, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has reported that there are more than 40 cases of COVID-19, with at least one in-custody death. Advocates and attorneys warn that even more have shown symptoms but not yet received medical care.
“Detention should not be a death sentence,” said Karen Lucas, director of the Immigration Justice Campaign. “But during the pandemic, close quarters and the disastrous failure to follow even basic precautions, like providing enough soap and masks, threaten the lives of everyone in ICE custody and government personnel and risk overwhelming local hospitals.”
On Thursday, the law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, working pro bono with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, Innovation Law Lab, Santa Fe Dreamers Project, and the Immigration Justice Campaign, filed a group habeas petition in district court demanding the release of those currently detained in Corley. The petition is the latest in a streak of legal efforts to free undocumented people held in immigration detention centers across the region, where detainees are reportedly being held in crowded conditions with inadequate access to medical treatment—and where some allegedly have been coerced into signing forms waiving ICE of responsibility in the event that they become ill.
The petition, filed on behalf of four men who have been detained in ICE custody for at least six month each, declared that the men are now “trapped in a facility that has seen a surge in COVID-19 infections rivaling that of any other detention facility nationwide.”
“As COVID-19 cases spike in Texas, the risks that Petitioners face at JCDF are more acute than ever,” the petition states.
“At Joe Corley, our clients [have] experienced arbitrary denials of their parole requests and continue to live under dangerous detention conditions,” said Linda Corchado, director of legal services at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, noting that some of the non-profit group’s clients have been transferred to other detention facilities around the country, potentially spreading the virus even further afield.
“Our clients faced life or death consequences arising out of prolonged detention during a pandemic,” Corchado said.
Under ordinary circumstances, the men at the center of the case would not be detained at all. Each of the men—26-year-old Kelvin Armando Escobar of Honduras, and 35-year-old Roger Ernesto Munoz, 53-year-old Jorge Luis Morales-Diaz, and 31-year-old Hugo Sanchez-Valdes of Cuba—is seeking asylum in the United States. They fled political persecution in their home countries and would normally be in the beginning stages of the process of seeking political asylum.
But under the Migrant Protection Protocols enacted by the Trump administration in January 2019, which are better known as the “Remain in Mexico” plan, they are awaiting removal from the United States, despite having demonstrated a credible fear of being returned to their countries of origin.
While each of the men is fighting their potential removal from the country, the more immediate threat, their lawyers say, comes from the virus within the walls of their detention facility.
“As of June 2, 2020, ICE reported that more than half of the nearly 2,800 detainees in its custody who had been tested were confirmed to have had the virus, and ICE facilities in Texas have reported more positive cases than facilities in any other state,” the petition noted. “That JCDF has emerged as a COVID-19 hotspot is hardly surprising in light of reports of abysmal conditions at the facility.”
A spokesperson for the Geo Group, the private prison company that owns the facility, said in a statement to The Daily Beast that all decisions relating to the release of detainees are made “exclusively by the federal government,” but noted that the company “has taken comprehensive steps at all our facilities to address the risks of COVID-19 to all those in our care and our employees.”
An ICE spokesperson pointed The Daily Beast to its guidance on COVID-19, in which the agency claims to isolate detainees with a fever or respiratory symptoms who meet unspecified criteria and to have reduced capacity in detention facilities by at least 30 percent.
But the Trump administration has previously shown little regard for the potential spread of COVID-19 among immigrant communities, particularly those ensnared in the increasingly labyrinthine immigration legal system. As the virus initially spread across the United States this spring, immigration courts expressed immense frustration with the lack of guidance about conducting immigration proceedings without putting participants in danger. The administration’s allies have also attempted to slash federal funds for states that have aided undocumented residents during the economic fallout from the pandemic, and just this week the administration extended and expanded immigration restrictions, pointing to the virus’ threat to American jobs as the reason.
Concerns about the consistency of ICE’s testing of immigrant detainees has even led to fears beyond detention centers. Earlier this week, The Daily Beast reported that one in five people deported to Guatemala has tested positive for COVID-19, despite having received a clean bill of health from the U.S. government before their removal.
Lucas said detention facilities are inherently unhealthy, even setting aside the coronavirus pandemic.
“The commonsense solution is clear,” Lucas said. “Robust implementation of long-standing, effective and humane community-based alternatives to detention is urgent as COVID-19 spreads through detention centers.”