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ICE reports first coronavirus cases among detained migrant families with children

The coronavirus has officially spread among migrant families in U.S. government detention. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, reported the first coronavirus cases among migrant families with children detained by the agency on Thursday. 

According to filings in the federal district court in Los Angeles, 11 family members at the Karnes County Residential Center in south Texas have tested positive for the virus.

The 11 infections are the first confirmed cases of coronavirus at the three family detention facilities ICE operates in Texas and Pennsylvania. The agency also reported four cases of coronavirus among employees at the family detention center in Dilley, Texas, on Thursday. 

More than 2,500 adult immigrants have tested positive for the coronavirus while in ICE custody, according to the agency's latest tally. More than 800 of them remain in isolation or observation, and some have been released. So far, the agency has said that two detainees have died of coronavirus complications while in its custody.

The coronavirus cases at the family detention centers were reported by an independent monitor tasked with overseeing ICE's compliance with the Flores Settlement Agreement, which governs the care of migrant minors in U.S. custody. Andrea Sheridan Ordin, the independent monitor, said all the family members who tested positive were "stable, asymptomatic, and remain housed in medical isolation rooms."

ICE press secretary Jenny Burke said the family members who tested positive were new arrivals and that they have not come into contact with other families at the Karnes facility, which is currently housing 73 migrants. As part of "proactive efforts to expand COVID-19 testing capabilities," ICE offered voluntary coronavirus tests to all families at Karnes on June 22, Burke said, adding that more results were pending. 

"This proactive testing of new admissions into Karnes provided the intended results. By isolating and testing families as they enter the facility, medical staff are able to provide the necessary care for new detainees while preventing those already in custody from possible exposure," Burke said in a statement late Thursday.

In addition to reporting the new cases, Sheridan Ordin expressed concerns about the way staff at the Karnes and Dilley detention centers are implementing measures designed to contain the virus. She conducted her assessment by talking to top ICE officials and health personnel, interviewing several detained families and reviewing footage and photographs of the facilities.

"While the general medical system at the facilities appears to be appropriate for the care of children in custody, the risk of Covid-19 to minors and their families in ICE custody continues to grow," Sheridan Ordin said in the court filing.

Sheridan Ordin said screenings protocols seemed adequate and that data suggested that families with chronic medical conditions were being released. But she noted that not all staff complied with the policy of wearing face masks and that social distancing was not always enforced, citing video footage and interviews with families.

The rising coronavirus cases in the Texas communities surrounding the Karnes and Dilley facilities were also a concern for Sheridan Ordin. "The lack of consistent compliance with recommended masking among some staff and distancing requirements in common eating areas elevate the risk that the virus once introduced into the facility may not be well contained," she wrote.

ICE did not immediately address the concerns raised by the independent monitor. The agency has repeatedly said it has taken the necessary steps to protect detainees and employees at detention centers.

ICE is in charge of long-term civil immigration detention of adults and families with minors. Because of an order by Judge Dolly Gee, who is in charge of the litigation surrounding the Flores Settlement, ICE is generally not supposed to keep families with children in unlicensed detention centers for more than 20 days.

In April, Gee ordered ICE and the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which cares for unaccompanied migrant children, to pursue the prompt release of minors in their custody — one of the mandates in the Flores consent decree.

ICE has released some families since then, but it continues to detain hundreds of families at Karnes, Dilley and a facility in Leesport, Pennsylvania. The agency recently conducted a parole review of all the children in its custody, but it denied most of their requests for release. Among other reasons, ICE said it did not grant parole to most of the families because the parents did not agree to be separated from their children so the minors could be released to sponsors. 

Alexandra Cohen, the advocacy division supervisor at the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, which provides legal services to the families at the Karnes facility, said she was not surprised by the new coronavirus cases there, noting that her group has been calling for the release of detainees during the pandemic. But she said she is worried about the virus spreading among families and children, many of whom are infants.

"The only real way to make sure that they don't get sick in detention is if they are not there, if they have the ability to social distance within their own homes," Cohen said.

"ICE has the discretion to release everyone in its custody. It is their decision to keep people detained. No one — but especially a child — should be subject to detention during a pandemic," she continued.

The Karnes facility is operated by the private prison corporation GEO Group, one of ICE's major contractors. The facility in Dilley, Texas is run by CoreCivic, another for-profit prison company.

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