Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested Salomon Diego Alonzo in August 2019 along with nearly 700 other migrant workers at food processing plants in Mississippi. Immigration authorities sent the 26-year-old Guatemalan, who had lived illegally in the United States since 2012, to a detention center in Monroe, La., where he stayed in a shared dormitory.
On Thursday, Alonzo had a court hearing by phone, but a guard told the judge he did “not have the lung capacity” to participate because he was sick with COVID-19. At the end of the two-hour proceeding, the judge agreed to delay his final asylum hearing, said Alonzo’s attorney, Veronica Semino. He was admitted into a hospital later that day.
Across the United States, many prisons are releasing nonviolent offenders to community-based supervision to keep the coronavirus from inundating the inmate population. So far, ICE has released 700 of its 32,000 detainees. Data shows 253 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among detainees at 28 facilities—27 of those are at the Richwood Correctional Center, where Alonzo was held.
Immigrant detention centers struggle with the same difficulties controlling the spread of disease as jails and other communal dwelling places. As illegal immigration across the U.S. southern border increased in recent years, detention centers have become overcrowded. President Donald Trump has emphasized the importance of arresting and detaining illegal immigrants to ensure they attend court hearings and deter others from entering illegally. Advocates for the immigrants argue that most of them show up for their hearings and that ankle monitors, check-ins with caseworkers, and bonds effectively and inexpensively work as well as detention in getting offenders to court.
Once COVID-19 hit, ICE adjusted some of its enforcement efforts to minimize the number of new detainees entering the system. In a letter dated March 13, leaders with the Evangelical Immigration Table urged acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf to release nonviolent immigrant detainees. “Our concern is rooted in our Christian belief that each human life is made in the image of God and thus precious,” they wrote.
Immigration lawyers began suing to get their clients, especially those particularly vulnerable to the disease, out of detention. In March, a U.S. District Court judge in New York City ordered the release of 10 at-risk immigrants. In mid-April, ICE announced it had evaluated “immigration history, criminal record, potential threat to public safety, flight risk, and national security concerns” and released nearly 700 detainees.
Julio Colcas, a 55-year-old Peruvian immigrant, was allowed to leave the Essex County Correctional Facility in New Jersey with an ankle monitor. “When I left, everyone was clapping,” he told NPR. “By me leaving, it gives them hope it could happen to them, too.”
ICE said it is following its pandemic plan and complying with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but some detainees report they do not have access to masks and testing. In California, immigrants started a hunger strike, demanding that ICE stop adding new detainees, make staff members wear gloves and masks, and provide hygiene supplies and COVID-19 testing.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal in Riverside, Calif., ordered the agency to review the cases of more detained immigrants vulnerable to the virus and consider releasing them.
“At this stage of the pandemic, the threat is even clearer,” Bernal wrote. “The number of immigration detainees testing positive for COVID-19 continues to increase at an alarming rate.”