The Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network joined hundreds of other immigrant-concerned professionals and dozens of groups in urging both President Joe Biden and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis to take action to protect immigrants and refugees from the dangers of COVID-19 and prior administration actions.
“The past four years, under the past administration, have been the darkest time that pretty much any immigration advocate can remember,” said Laura Lunn, managing attorney of the detention program at RMIAN. “RMIAN is elated to have a level-headed administration that is seeking to use common sense and listen to the need of a population we’re trying to serve, to find solutions that work for everybody.”
In signing the letter to Biden, RMIAN joined 94 different immigrant, civil and human rights organizations urging the new president to take quick action to address policies blocking, denying or affecting relief for people seeking humanitarian protection in the U.S. Other signatories included the Center for Justice and International Law, Columbia Law School Immigrants’ Rights Clinic and the Southern Poverty Law Center among others.
RMIAN worked with the Colorado Medical Coalition of Human Rights in sending the letter urging action on COVID concerns in Colorado detention centers to Polis and Jill Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment. The letter argues that the constant challenges of COVID on the Aurora Contract Detention Facility are not only dangerous to detainees, but the community as a whole. More than 200 medical professionals ranging from professors and nurses to pediatricians and psychiatrists signed on in support to the letter.
The letter to Biden was sent on Feb. 9, roughly a week since the new president signed an executive order including reviews of several migration and asylum seeker policies left over from the prior administration.
The letter begins by welcoming some steps taken by the new administration to end “the illegal and inhumane asylum and border policies implemented by the Trump administration.” It then proceeds to urge the new president to rescind harmful policies still in place, several of which are not referenced in the Feb. 2 executive order.
“Every day that holdover Trump administration policies remain in effect, people seeking U.S. humanitarian protections are being turned away or expelled to places where their lives are at risk in violation of U.S. refugee and anti-trafficking laws and treaty obligations,” according to the letter.
Some of the actions taken by the new administration lauded by the groups included the removal of the Trump-era asylum entry ban proclamation, the use of “fast-track” deportation programs, blocking asylum seekers from access to legal counsel and the zero-tolerance policy leading to large-scale family separations.
In the Feb. 2 executive order, Biden ordered a review of Trump era policies including several targeted specifically at certain groups. One set for review is the Migrant Protection Protocols, where citizens and nationals of other nations than Mexico arriving in the U.S. by land from Mexico (whether or not at a point of entry) could be returned to Mexico while their removal proceedings were pending. The letter claims that there are already over 1,300 reports of rape, kidnapping and assault against people forcibly returned to Mexico under MPP alone. The signers of the letter urged quick review of this, and other policies listed in the order and looked forward to engaging with the new administration on reforms.
The letter continues to note other areas of concern that currently exist, such as ensuring that local Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials adhere to interim instruction and guidance, that children arriving at the border are protected and that the new administration must address other concerns not mentioned in the executive order, including detention of asylum seekers, regulations and policies aiming to undermine refugee law through prior executive action and subversion of due process.
On Feb. 18, the Washington Post reported that Democrats were set to formally file Biden’s immigration bill, which would create the first “major path” to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in roughly 35 years.
The bill proposes, according to the White House website, to create a roadmap to citizenship for undocumented individuals, keep families together, embrace diversity, promote immigrant and refugee integration and citizenship, grow the economy and protect workers from exploitation.
The day before submitting the Biden letter, RMIAN and medical professionals submitted a letter to Polis urging action on COVID concerns in the Aurora detention facility for Colorado immigrants where, according to the RMIAN website, an ongoing COVID-19 outbreak has continued since May 2020.
“Immigrants are a vital part of our communities and are essential to the identify of Colorado as a state,” the letter to Polis states. The letter goes on to mention that hundreds of Colorado residents are affected by civil immigration detention including spouses and children who’re separated from families and held in ICE or Office of Refugee Resettlement confinement.
The letter included three appeals to the CDPHE and the governor’s office: The state include immigrant detention facilities in any plan related to securing communities in regard to COVID; the Governor’s Expert Emergency Epidemic Response Committee should meet with stakeholders including detainees, community organizations, health professionals and experts on detention; and that Colorado do everything in its power to protect the safety and health of detainees, including prioritizing access to COVID vaccines.
“We know that detained immigrants are at a high risk for COVID-19,” the letter states. Further, where that transmission takes place matters, and the context of transmission can lead to more secondary infections in densely populated settings. The letter compares the confined space and population of detention centers to cruise ships, which have had high COVID reproduction numbers.
Quoting the American Medical Association’s policy in support of improved health measures and vaccine access to detainees, the letter states, “recognizing that detention center and correctional workers, incarcerated people and detained immigrants are at high risk for COVID-19, the new policy also makes clear that these individuals should be prioritized in receiving access to safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines in the initial phases of distribution.”
The detainees facing COVID outbreaks in detention facilities are public health risks for the entire community because they can become “epicenters of transmission and disease,” according to the letter. Even with correctional officers being vaccinated, COVID risks still exist as individuals continue to be released and transferred between facilities, and service providers must continue to visit.
The letter argues that COVID concerns at the Aurora facility have been ongoing and notes that COVID cases and challenges have affected the facility since the start of the pandemic. As of Feb. 8, eight of the approximately 25 occupied dormitories in the facility were under quarantine.
As of Feb. 18, the Aurora facility reported a total of 12 detainees being COVID positive, according to the ICE website. These 12 are part of the grand total of 185 detainees who have tested positive for COVID at the Aurora facility since testing in began in February of 2020. The letter reports that in January alone, the total of COVID-positive detainees reached 52. The Aurora facility has not reported any deaths of detainees after testing positive for COVID-19 while in their custody.
But the effects of the COVID outbreaks are not just medical. According to the letter, those in detention during COVID outbreaks are denied access to immigration court and due process protections. “RMIAN has witnessed individuals under quarantine struggle to communicate with advocates, face delays in their requests for release under bond and for relief from deportation as hearings are rescheduled and fail to gather evidence as movement within the facilities is restricted.”
RMIAN and the medical collation also express a belief in the letter that detainees harbor fear and mistrust toward detention officers, and as a result, may not feel safe accepting vaccines from staff working directly for or alongside the detention officers.