Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) continues to find horrific ways to mistreat immigrants. According to a federal lawsuit filed Monday, migrants seeking asylum who are locked up in an Arizona ICE detention center were forced to clean the facility. The La Palma Correctional Center is reported to have the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases of any ICE facility; more than 70 people detained in the center have tested positive for COVID-19 within the last week, the Arizona Republic reported. Detained immigrants were not only denied protection from the novel coronavirus, but allegedly fed rotten food, the lawsuit says.
“This is a life or death situation,” read a translation of a letter obtained by NBC News that was sent to the Florence Immigrants & Refugees Rights Project. The migrants wrote to the advocacy organization to request their help after two migrants were forced to clean the trash from the nurses’ office in an area where COVID-19 patients were being treated without proper protective equipment. One even said they were forced to clean—without gloves—a feces-contaminated cell where a mentally ill migrant was being detained, NBC News reported. In addition to cleaning COVID-infected spaces, detainees were forced to clean the facility kitchen, which is overly crowded during meal times.
Those who protested against participating in these tasks were “sent to the hole,” as solitary confinement is known, in addition to being threatened with being locked up indefinitely, the letter said. According to the lawsuit, migrants were also denied access to basic hygiene supplies and practices, including showers and toilet paper.
The lawsuit alleges that guards did not take seriously the safety precautions that were put into place to contain the novel coronavirus. According to the lawsuit, guards did not wear any equipment to prevent the spread of infection when going from one cell to another.
Safety measures were also disregarded during meals. When serving food, “no measures for social distancing” were enabled as immigrants lined up, the lawsuit alleged. Since the facility’s kitchen closed in May, immigrants were also fed prepackaged food that had grown rotten, including spoiled ham and bread sandwiches.
“Our clients have told us over and over again it’s impossible to practice social distancing in detention,” Laura Belous, an attorney with the Florence Immigrants & Refugees Rights Project, told MSNBC. “It’s impossible to maintain that six feet of distance when the telephone you’re sitting on to talk to your lawyer is one to three feet from the other guy on the phone. When you’re in communal showers. When 40 to 50 guys are touching the same door. That disease is going to spread like wildfire. And the fact is, it has.”
In addition to the inhumane conditions, immigrants in the facility are being unlawfully detained because their asylum hearings have been delayed. The lawsuit requests that ICE release the immigrants because of the facility’s high risk of coronavirus infection. “People shouldn’t have to choose between their health and an immigration case,” said Belous. “This is a situation that was completely avoidable.”
When asked for a comment, an ICE spokeswoman told NBC News that the agency does not comment on pending litigation. She then claimed that ICE has been enforcing CDC guidelines and that “the health, welfare and safety” of those in custody is “one of ICE’s highest priorities.”
This isn’t the first lawsuit to occur against ICE regarding its inhumane conditions and lack of health care. ICE continues to endanger both detainees and employees with its complete disregard for hygiene and refusal to stop mass detentions. Amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, the agency continues to both detain and transfer immigrants across the country, increasing the risk of spreading COVID-19.
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