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Doctors And Activists Call For ICE To Release Families In Detention, Citing COVID-19 Concerns

Dr. Elena Jimenez-Gutierrez knows the impact of COVID-19 well. She’s an internal medicine doctor but has been working at the intensive care unit of a San Antonio hospital.

“Many of these people have long, complicated hospital stays and even if we do everything we can for these patients… many of them will still die unfortunately, and those that don’t die often have prolonged recovery periods because they’ve lost lung capacity or have nervous system damage,” she said.

That’s why she traveled to the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley on Friday, along with about a dozen doctors and immigrant rights advocates, to call for the release of migrant children and their parents. 

A federal judge ordered U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release children at detention facilities like the one in Dilley by July 17. 

Judge Dolly Gee of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California said children in custody for more than 20 days must be released to a sponsor or to a COVID-free setting with the consent of their parents. She also said ICE could release the children with their guardians and continue monitoring them but left it up to the agency’s discretion.

Immigrant rights advocates say parents and other asylum seekers should also be released because of the risk of COVID-19 spread.

“With this virus being as infectious as it truly is, it is highly concerning that an outbreak would be uncontrollable in these congregate settings,” Jimenez-Gutierrez said.

She’s done research on the health of asylum seekers and said past outbreaks of measles, mumps and chickenpox have shown detention centers to be likely hot spots. She added that immigrants often face underlying conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

“The release of families, what would it do to our community? It would actually reduce the burden to local hospitals, which will otherwise bear the brunt of treating individuals when infected, thus decreasing the number of beds and equipment available for the general population,” she said.

ICE has said it is taking precautions such as screening immigrants and isolating detainees with symptoms. Three families were put in isolation at the Dilley facility in June after staffers there tested positive.

But Jimenez-Gutierrez and Fred C. Campbell Jr., another San Antonio internal medicine doctor, say they have heard otherwise. Campbell says he spoke to the parents of children detained at the Karnes County Residential Center three months ago.

“There was inadequate use of social distancing, masks and other hygiene measures to minimize COVID-19 transmission,” he said. 

Of the more than 22,000 immigrants in custody, 883 have tested positive for COVID-19 across the country, according to ICE’s website. And 45 ICE employees at detention centers have been confirmed to have the virus. 

Immigrant rights advocates also worry the federal ruling for the children to be released will only lead to family separation. 

“We want them to be released with their parents, with whatever legal guardians they have, and be released to their families so the traumatization of these children ends,” said Jenny Sevilla of the group Austin Border Relief.

ICE did not respond to a request for comment on the fate of the children, but it has filed documents in court arguing that parents and children should not be released together.

Dr. Dona Kim Murphey and other advocates came from as far as Houston for the demonstration. They had planned to peacefully protest inside the residential center but the entrance was guarded by local law enforcement.

Frio County Patrol Deputy Greg Reyes said law enforcement was there out of precaution and to direct traffic.

So, instead, the protestors rallied and broadcasted recorded messages from asylum seekers on the road leading to the facility before traveling to San Antonio for a press conference at an ICE check-in there.


Maria Mendez can be reached at Maria@tpr.org and on Twitter at @anxious_maria. She's a corps member of Report For America.


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