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A Tweet Raises Questions About Immigrant Safety During Coronavirus Pandemic

As COVID-19 spreads, ICE detained a Central American immigrant in a hospital, causing confusion and raising concerns.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown.

A Tweet Raises Questions About Immigrant Safety During Coronavirus Pandemic

As COVID-19 spreads, ICE detained a Central American immigrant in a hospital, causing confusion and raising concerns.

On Thursday, Pennsylvania immigration attorney Juliette Gomez tweeted an image of ICE officers arresting her client in a hospital. The picture, which was quickly shared widely, is blurry and is taken from behind her client, who appears to have men escorting him by each of his arms.

Gomez told The Appeal that her client, a Honduran immigrant and father of three, was in federal court to be sentenced for illegally re-entering the country. According to Gomez, her client and his public defender learned that ICE intended to arrest her client at the courthouse after the hearing, held in Scranton. The public defender asked the judge to give Gomez’s client a chance to say goodbye to his family, who had come with him to the hearing, Gomez said. Before her client interacted with ICE, he went into respiratory distress and was taken to the hospital, where ICE agents reportedly waited outside his door and detained him inside the hospital. 

ICE initially said it only operates in medical facilities “under extraordinary circumstances” and later released a statement confirming that it detained Gomez’s client at the hospital. They also noted they had planned to detain the man at the courthouse after sentencing.

Without context, some feared the arrest meant ICE was targeting hospitals to find detainees seeking care for COVID-19, the coronavirus that has become a global pandemic. Although no news of this has emerged, advocates have voiced concern that the Trump administration’s history of targeting immigrants and ramping up deportations will have a chilling effect on immigrants seeking healthcare for the coronavirus. 

Madhuri Grewal, a federal immigration policy attorney with the ACLU, questioned what this meant for ICE’s policies more broadly during the coronavirus outbreak. “For the most part, it is not typical to see ICE carry out a lot of enforcement actions at the sensitive locations,” like hospitals, places of worship, and public demonstrations, Grewal says. “That is not to say it doesn’t happen.”

According to an ICE memo, unless previously approved by a high-ranking official, its agents will not carry out enforcement at these locations, but there are limited exceptions, including for what they deem “national security” risks and “imminent risk of death, violence, or personal harm.”

“I actually believe that, and from what I have heard, there has been enforcement at some of these sensitive locations,” said Grewal, “and I think there is significant disagreement as to whether it really falls within one of the exceptions that they outline in their memo.” 

The ACLU has pushed for courts to be included in ICE’s sensitive locations list, and in 2018, the organization released a report on how immigration arrests at courthouses undermine the justice system. 

Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which, like ICE, falls under the purview of the Department of Homeland Security, has detained immigrants in hospitals. In 2017, 10-year-old Rosa Maria Hernandez, who has cerebral palsy, was stopped at an immigration checkpoint while being transported to a hospital for gallbladder surgery. CBP agents followed Hernandez to the Corpus Christi, Texas, hospital, where they waited outside of her room until she was discharged then immediately detained her.

“These are the kinds of cases that come to mind when immigrant communities are thinking about seeking healthcare,” Grewal says. “They may not make the distinction between ICE and CBP.”

In previous extreme circumstances, such as natural disasters, ICE issued public statements, saying it would suspend enforcement activity. But the agency has yet to do so as coronavirus spreads in the U.S.

“It is incumbent upon DHS to have its subdivisions, specifically ICE and CBP, issue a public statement saying that they’re suspending enforcement in light of the circumstances, and they failed to do so,” said Grewal.

Instead, ICE agents have continued to detain people. Agents recently arrested at least eight Central American immigrants at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. On Monday, ICE and CBP agents made arrests in Los Angeles on the first day of new restrictions to contain the coronavirus outbreak. Meanwhile, the sheriff’s department announced Monday morning that it would be cutting the city jail population to help limit contact.

“We couldn’t factor this in, right?” David Marin, the director of Enforcement and Removal Operations for ICE in Los Angeles, told the Los Angeles Times of COVID-19 and the precautions being taken. “We just have to continue to go with the same game plan that we’ve been doing.”

On Monday, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against ICE, demanding they release nine people who have lung disease, heart disease, diabetes, epilepsy, kidney disease, or other ailments from a Tacoma, Washington detention center, who are “critically vulnerable” to developing COVID-19. On Sunday, the union that represents ICE employees joined immigration attorneys and judges in their calls for the temporary closure of immigration court to slow the spread of the virus. And on Tuesday night, the Department of Justice announced that they would postpone all immigration court hearings besides for those currently held by ICE starting Wednesday.

“It’s a tricky situation because, on the one hand, we’re all concerned for public health and safety in general, and nobody wants to be putting a bunch of people in a courtroom,” Gomez said. “And on the other hand, the administration’s policy is absolutely zero prosecutorial discretion, which means that if courts close down or people go into quarantine and detention, they are essentially being deprived of their freedom and the legal mechanisms to access or challenge that deprivation.”

Gomez is pushing for her client’s release. He was prescribed an inhaler, and the jail where he’s being held won’t give him regular access to it, even during respiratory attacks, Gomez said. She also fears that ICE will place him in solitary confinement with little supervision. Solitary can be a death sentence in and of itself, and people with respiratory conditions or illnesses are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. 

“We are all in this together and we don’t win when immigrant communities are in the shadows,” says Grewal. “DHS needs to do better.”

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