At least five immigrants held in two ICE detention centers in Pennsylvania have tested positive for COVID-19, officials said Saturday evening, only hours after they reported the first confirmed case.
Immigration advocates and attorneys have argued for weeks that the detention centers are ripe for outbreaks, and that the people confined there — few of whom have been convicted of criminal offenses — must be released to family members for their safety and that of the staff.
ICE officials in Philadelphia said four people held at the Pike County Correctional Facility have tested positive for the deadly virus, identifying them only as a 31-year-old and 37-year-old from Mexico, a 41-year-old Dominican national, and a 28-year-old from Guatemala.
Additionally, a 37-year-old Mexican national at the York County Prison tested positive.
All five have been quarantined and are receiving medical care. Those who came in contact with them have been grouped together and are being monitored for symptoms, ICE said.
“Anything short of immediately releasing every person detained in ICE custody at this point is irresponsible and will result in deaths of people who are in civil custody,” said immigration lawyer Bridget Cambria, the executive director of ALDEA — the People’s Justice Center in Reading.
The 31-year-old Mexican man at Pike, in far northeastern Pennsylvania, was announced early Saturday as the first confirmed case of COVID-19 at an ICE detention center in the state.
ICE officials said they had no additional comment beyond their public statements.
In Pennsylvania, undocumented migrants awaiting hearings are confined in Clinton County, Pike County, York County, and Berks County, the latter one of the nation’s three centers for families. On Saturday, members of the Shut Down Berks Coalition staged a “honk in” as they drove past Gov. Tom Wolf’s home, demanding that he issue an Emergency Removal Order to empty Berks of its current five families.
Department of Human Services spokesperson Ali Fogarty said the Wolf administration’s position on Berks "remains that the federal government should cease operations of this facility. We have already stated that the Wolf administration cannot unilaterally shut down this facility without immediate threat to health and safety.”
An emergency removal order would not free the detained families from federal custody, she said, adding that all DHS-licensed facilities have been instructed to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state Health Department guidelines.
On Tuesday a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl and her father left the Berks detention center after a judge ruled that parents in custody should have the same rights as their children, that is, release whenever possible.
“There is absolutely no good-faith argument for continuing to detain people in these COVID-19 incubators,” Philadelphia immigration attorney Juliette Gomez said Saturday, noting the easy availability of alternatives.
She questioned: When and why did ICE test the man at Pike who first turned up positive? What symptoms are considered as reasons to test?
“Nothing that ICE is doing appears to be done in good faith,” Gomez said. “It’s all being done to obfuscate facts while proceeding with their no-mercy agenda.”
Immigration attorneys say the close quarters make detention centers fertile ground for virus outbreaks, endangering those confined there and the staff who work inside. They say staff members could not only become sick themselves, but unknowingly carry the virus home to their families.
Only last summer, a mumps outbreak in Texas immigration detention centers quickly surged through the system, sickening almost 1,000 migrants in 57 facilities across the country. An entire wing of the York County Prison was quarantined for two months to defend against a virus that can spread person-to-person before symptoms appear.