ICE: Immigrants in Aurora detention center possibly exposed to COVID-19

The immigration enforcement agency declined to say whether detainees are being tested for COVID-19

The ICE detention facility in Aurora is one of 22 new outbreaks reported by CDPHE this week.
The ICE detention facility in Aurora is one of 22 new outbreaks reported by CDPHE this week. (Photo by Alex Burness)

Ten people have been grouped into a “cohort” at the ICE detention center in Aurora following reports of possible exposure to COVID-19, the highly infectious disease caused by the new coronavirus, according to a statement issued by ICE on Tuesday.

The 10 people are not considered sick, said Alethea Smock, an ICE spokesperson, in an email. She would not say whether the immigrants or anyone else in the detention facility has been tested for COVID-19. 

“ICE testing for COVID-19 complies with CDC guidance,” Smock said in an email. She added, “I believe the person has to have tested positive to indicate if testing is warranted.” 

When asked to clarify, she said, “All I can say is we are following guidance.”

As on Wednesday morning, there are 635 detainees in the 1,500-person center.

The potential for a COVID-19 outbreak comes as the number of positive cases in Colorado continues to climb, with 183 confirmed positive cases in Colorado as of Tuesday afternoon. Gov. Jared Polis told reporters on Monday there are likely thousands of people in Colorado with the disease. Two people infected with the disease have died, state health officials said Tuesday.

Ana Rodríguez, an organizer with the Colorado People’s Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group, is calling on ICE to release vulnerable people, such as older people and people with underlying conditions, to parole. 

“I am honestly horrified at the thought that the virus could spread uncontrollably in this and other detention facilities,” Rodríguez said. 

“Detainees and their loved ones shouldn’t have to worry about whether their loved ones will survive detention. We shouldn’t need for disaster to strike before someone takes action.” 

Criminal justice groups, including ACLU Colorado and the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender, are calling on Polis and other state leaders to immediately release inmates from jails and prisons, decrease new admissions, and change court practices to decrease in-person appearances. The jail population is considered medically vulnerable, public defenders say. The Aurora jail has turned away arrested people who may have been exposed to the new coronavirus, the Aurora Sentinel reports

On Tuesday, the ACLU of Washington sued ICE and requested inmates at a detention center in Tacoma who may be at high risk of an illness be released. ACLU Colorado says there is no such lawsuit pending in Colorado at this time. 

On Wednesday, the Colorado Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association called on ICE to cancel all check-ins, immediately release anyone with vulnerabilities from detention, decrease the number of individuals in detention, take care to prevent transmission in custody, allow stays of removal and emergency motions to be submitted via mail, provide flexibility on all deadlines, and stipulate to relief from removal when appropriate, especially in detained cases.

The GEO Group-owned Aurora immigration detention center has been criticized for its treatment of immigrants. It has isolated immigrants in solitary confinement and one person with a substance use disorder died in 2017 after being forced into addiction withdrawal. 

Smock said in an email the health, welfare and safety of ICE detainees is one of the agency’s highest priorities. She said since the onset of reports of COVID-19, ICE epidemiologists have been tracking the outbreak, regularly updating infection prevention and control protocols, and issuing guidance to ICE Health Service Corps staff for the screening and management of potential exposure among detainees. ICE has also temporarily suspended visitations in all of its detention facilities. 

But unlike Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who told reporters on Monday he is directing his sheriff deputies to not book people for certain low-level offenses, the White House has issued no such directive to ICE in order to limit the number of arrests amid the public health crisis. 

At least two recent ICE arrests of Denver Public Schools parents have been confirmed, The Denver Post reports.

Smock said enforcement officers and agents continue to make criminal and civil arrests. And, she said, detention is required for some detainees per the Immigration and Nationality Act. “ICE’s detention authority is based in the furtherance of an alien’s immigration proceedings, and if so ordered, their removal from the country,” she said.

This story was updated on Wednesday, March 18 at 1 p.m. with a list of demands from the Colorado Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association to ICE. AILA Colorado is seeking to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the Aurora detention center.

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