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Texas Migrant Detention Centers Hotbeds for COVID-19

If you’ve been exposed to coronavirus or have felt sick from an infection, chances are you have access to an urgent care, a drive-through testing site, or the option to self-isolate or quarantine. Migrants in Texas detention centers don’t have that option. 

Detainees in these centers are housed in bunk bed-style rooms in close quarters, and the virus is spreading like wildfire. In June, one in five of the detainees at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Houston had tested positive for COVID-19, the Houston Chronicle reported. The rate of infection is nearly triple what it is in the general population.

The rise in COVID-19 cases in the detention facilities prompted U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee to order the release of all children detained with their parents or legal guardians for more than 20 days at ICE Family Residential Centers by July 17. 

“Given the severity of the outbreak in the counties in which FRCs [Family Residential Centers] are located and the Independent Monitor and Dr. Wise’s observations of non-compliance or spotty compliance with masking and social distancing rules, renewed and more vigorous efforts must be undertaken to transfer (children) residing at the FRCs to non-congregate settings,” Gee wrote in her order.

“The FRCs are ‘on fire’ and there is no more time for half measures,” she continued.

Gee gave ICE two options for removing the children — release them to other family members if the parents consent to being separated from them or release the families together to continue their immigration proceedings within communities in the U.S.  

Texas Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to the Trump administration asking for explanations for why ICE is asking immigrants to make this choice, and urging them to stop using coronavirus as a way to implement “unlawful and inhumane immigration policies.” 

“In these extraordinary times, human suffering need not be compounded by locking up families or instilling fear in the hearts of migrant parents,” read the letter, sent to acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Matt Albence.

The greater Houston area has three ICE detention centers. As of the end of May, 78 of the 379 immigrants held at the Houston Contract Detention Facility had tested positive for COVID-19, which is the highest rate among the three. Across Texas, there are a total of 31 detention centers where immigrants are held, which include undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers, people who overstayed their visas, and others. 

Experts say that the spread of coronavirus in these centers could overwhelm health care providers and hospitals, which are already nearing capacity in the Houston area, and provide further risk to the community. 

Inability to socially distance, and fear of saying they are sick and risking retaliation on their immigration cases are two major reasons those in the centers are getting infected so rapidly. 

Advocacy groups like the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services say they have heard from many immigrants who are afraid to speak up and say they are sick, or fear family separation. 

RAICES and other advocates are calling for ICE to release families together. But RAICES also fears that ICE will try instead to deport as many families as possible instead of releasing them to avoid explaining why they’re still being detained. 
“We cannot wait for a New York Times article to come out and to see a picture to get upset,” Laura Molinar, Director of Sueños Sin Fronteras de Tejas said on twitter. “The time is NOW. We all have a responsibility to call this out and prevent this from happening. It’s about urging everyone to do this.”

Meredith Mohr
Meredith Mohr
Meredith is a writer, editor, storyteller, and "girl-in-the-city." She's created content for thought leaders for publications like Forbes, The Texas Tribune, and The Houston Chronicle.


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