Immigration and Customs Enforcement has moved 776 detainees into a privately-run detention center in Aurora in the approximate eight weeks since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Colorado, according to reports from Rep. Jason Crow’s office.
Over this same period of time, roughly an equal number of detainees were moved out — transferred, released or deported — a shuffling of immigrants and asylum-seekers that Crow argues is increasing the risk of exposure and transmission of the new coronavirus.
The facility, which can hold 1,532 people, was down to 525 on April 27, according to Crow’s reports. Since July 2019, Crow’s office has been requesting data from ICE for his weekly ICE accountability reports.
The agency’s detention of immigrants comes despite calls from criminal justice advocates to reduce the number of detainees locked up in and cycling through the detention center during the pandemic. The respiratory disease has killed 903 people in Colorado in the last two months, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
But ICE continues to arrest immigrants and transfer them from jails and prisons across the state into their Aurora facility, immigration attorneys say, including one immigrant from the Sterling Correctional Facility, a prison where 241 inmates and 11 employees have had lab-confirmed COVID-19. Early in the pandemic, attorneys at the Meyer Law Office said they received reports of ICE arresting people outside the Denver courthouse. On March 23, Gov. Jared Polis signed into law a bill that bars ICE from making civil arrests in or around courthouses.
Crow, of Aurora, said in a May 5 letter to ICE Acting Director Matthew Albence that the agency was transferring detainees to the Aurora facility in order “to meet contract minimums at their contract facilities.”
The agency has already paid GEO Group, a Florida-based private prison company that operates the Aurora detention center, to manage 525 inmates in the facility as part of its contract with the company, according to GEO Group. Criminal justice advocates say these so-called “bed quotas” encourage ICE to keep beds filled and inflate the cost to taxpayers for running immigration detention centers.
Crow is requesting that ICE halt the transferring of detainees between facilities in order “to meet contract minimums throughout the duration of the COVID-19 outbreak.”
“These detainees present a significant risk of exposure to the existing population, staff, and surrounding community at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility. The movement and exposure of those brought in through enforcement and removal operations prior to their detention is unknown,” Crow wrote. He added, “These practices raise serious questions about the existing public health standards and procedures in both detention facilities operated by ICE and contract facilities nationwide”
Alethea Smock, a spokesperson for ICE, said contractual minimums have no bearing on the decisions on whether a detainee should remain in custody. In response to a request for comment on Crow’s letter, Smock said, “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) responds to official correspondence through appropriate channels.”
Crow’s letter comes after Democratic members of Colorado’s congressional delegation sent another letter to the Executive Office for Immigration Review and ICE raising concerns about due process violations for the detainees at the Aurora facility’s immigration court. The immigration court has remained mostly open during the pandemic with hearings held over the phone. But immigration attorneys say they have had difficulty representing clients in these conditions. The letter recommends that any documents presented in the courtroom be scanned and emailed to counsel either in advance or during a recess to allow for detainees to consult their attorneys, among other recommendations.
Many detainees at the detention center in Aurora are seeking asylum or are accused of violating U.S. immigration laws. In April, immigration attorneys sued ICE to release medically at-risk detainees. Within one day, ICE released eight women, all of whom have HIV, according to Laura Lunn of the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, an organization involved in the lawsuit. ICE would not confirm the release of the detainees.
The Colorado Independent has asked ICE for the number of detainees tested for COVID-19 and this story will be updated if the information is provided. So far, the agency has not reported any diagnosed cases among detainees in the Aurora facility. At least two ICE employees and four GEO employees have tested positive.