Coronavirus

Immigrant Detention Center Employee Tests Positive For COVID-19

Immigration lawyers worry the disease could be quickly transmitted throughout the detention facility.

An employee at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in Conroe, Texas has tested positive for COVID-19, according to ICE officials.

The facility’s operator, GeoGroup, issued a statement saying that the employee working at the Montgomery ICE Processing Center has been in self-quarantine since March 18.

Three additional employees at the ICE facility are also in self-quarantine and one detained immigrant is in isolation there.

An ICE official said there are 833 men and women currently being held at that detention center.

As a result of the case, Houston-area immigration attorneys are calling on ICE to release all detained immigrants in the region.

“The fact that people in ICE custody in Houston have already been exposed to COVID-19 through a facility guard who has tested positive is extremely concerning and highlights the risk to our clients of remaining detained,” Julie Pasch, managing attorney for Deportation Defense Houston, said in a statement.

She said it’s imperative for public health that immigrants be released from ICE detention.

“Oftentimes in these situations there is no possibility of doing social distancing, and you are forced to be in a small, unventilated area with other people,” Dr. Ranit Mishori, a senior medical advisor for Physicians for Human Rights, told KERA in Dallas.

“In these situations there's less access to basic hygiene measures, less access to healthcare,” Mishori said, “especially in relation to the immigration detention centers, we have a very recent history of disease outbreaks already occurring like mumps and chickenpox.”

Health care issues at ICE facilities have been raised by an independent federal review citing unsanitary conditions at four different facilities.

And detention centers are no strangers to outbreaks.

A mumps outbreak last year infected more than 400 people in Texas detention facilities.

"These systemic issues, combined with the close quarters that detained individuals are held in, are immensely troubling in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. We are urging ICE to release all medically vulnerable individuals immediately for their safety, as well as the safety of detention center employees, legal service providers, and the public," Katie Shepherd, national advocacy counsel with the Immigration Justice Campaign, said in a written statement.

Meanwhile, immigration judges and other legal professionals have been asking the federal government to close down courts for detained immigrants.

Detained courts are still under way for migrant children who arrived to the United States without a parent. Kids and teens are continuing to be bussed to their hearings from various migrant shelters around Houston.

Courts for detained adults, like those in the Montgomery ICE Processing Center, are also continuing, despite the closure of non-detained immigration courts.

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Elizabeth Trovall

Elizabeth Trovall

Immigration Reporter

Elizabeth Trovall is an immigration reporter for Houston Public Media. She joined the News 88.7 team after several years abroad in Santiago, Chile, where she reported on business, energy, politics and culture. Trovall's work has been featured on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Marketplace, Here and Now, Latino...

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