Protect detained asylum seekers from growing danger of COVID-19 | Physicians for Human Rights

Protect detained asylum seekers from growing danger of COVID-19

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Even as some communities begin to see evidence that social distancing is "flattening the curve" of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of our most vulnerable populations is facing escalating danger: asylum seekers who have been detained in crowded detention centers in unhygienic conditions at the U.S.-Mexico border and elsewhere.

Already, 50 people have contracted the virus in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities, and we MUST act quickly to save lives and prevent a full scale outbreak. The solution is clear and obvious: Release asylum seekers held in detention to monitored community facilities and the homes of relatives where they can shelter in place much more safely. Send your letter to Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf and demand the release of asylum seekers today.

Your Message
Don't put detained asylum seekers at risk
Mr. Secretary:

In response to the escalating COVID-19 pandemic, your administration has issued guidance to millions of people, advising them to stay home, avoid social gatherings, and halt non-discretionary travel. Most have retreated to the safety of their homes to protect themselves and the people around them. And yet many in the United States are unable to do so – including asylum seekers and migrants in immigration detention facilities. Public health experts have warned that an outbreak of COVID-19 would burn through jails, prisons, and detention centers like wildfire.

The risk posed by infectious diseases like COVID-19 in immigration detention facilities is significantly higher than in communities, both in terms of risk of exposure and the risk of transmission to others. Although detainees are confined to these facilities, they are not shielded from exposure, as evidenced by the fact that, as of today, 50 people in migrant detention facilities have contracted the virus, and confirmed cases are also reported in the prison system. Your administration has responded with containment strategies, but these measures are destined to fail, as they require people who are ill to be isolated and for their caregivers to have adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). Jails and prisons remain under-resourced and unable to provide the necessary PPE, particularly during a nationwide shortage of PPE.

Further, migrants and asylum seekers being held in detention facilities are unable to take the very same mitigating actions that the Centers for Disease Control have recommended. Jailed or imprisoned, detainees are unable to protect themselves by social distancing and recommended hygiene standards. Detainees live in close, crowded quarters, sharing everything from common areas to telephones that are unlikely to be regularly disinfected to prevent the spread of coronavirus and without adequate access to soap or products to exercise necessary hygiene measures. They are thus at a dramatically higher risk of being exposed to and acquiring infectious diseases. Coronavirus is likely to spread quickly among the dense detainee cohort. Surging coronavirus infections can then easily overwhelm limited health resources in detention facilities, which in turn can strain surrounding hospitals.

However, there is a solution. The vast majority of asylum seekers have family members or close connections in communities in the United States, according to a recent study, with whom they can safely and adequately shelter in place while practicing social distancing. For those who do not have sponsors, civil society groups are available to support release efforts. By allowing migrants and asylum seekers to shelter in communities, your administration will lower the risk of infection across the board, including the risk for Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel, and ease the pressure on local medical facilities and personnel.

To avoid a needless and potentially lethal situation, I call on the Department of Homeland Security to facilitate the orderly and coordinated release or parole of migrants being held in immigration detention facilities into community-based sheltering programs. Migrants must be given the same chance to protect themselves and the people around them during this health crisis as everyone else in this country. To do anything less is to recklessly contribute to the spread of the coronavirus and risk the lives of thousands in the United States.

[First Name] [Last Name]

The President
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20500

The Honorable Alex M. Azar II
Department of Health and Human Services
200 Independence Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20201