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caption: Jose Robles from the Northwest Detention Center 
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Jose Robles from the Northwest Detention Center
Credit: KUOW Photo/Emsy Jimenez

'Any day the sickness will arrive.' ICE detainees in Tacoma brace for COVID-19

Immigration activists across the nation and in Washington state are pushing for private detention facilities to release individuals who are at higher risk of getting coronavirus.

This week, activists held a protest outside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. The protest is taking the form of a car caravan to maintain social distancing.

KUOW’s immigration reporter Esmy Jimenez bring us up to date.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

What did the advocates want?

There are a number of advocates calling for a few different things. The ACLU and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project sued ICE in mid-March. They were asking for nine vulnerable detainees at the Tacoma center to be released to their families.

These are individuals who have health problems like epilepsy or weakened immune systems. So far, three of them have been released.

Doctors at the University of Washington also sent a letter to Governor Inslee asking him to hold GEO accountable. GEO’s the private contractor in charge of the detention center in Tacoma.

The doctors say they “consider it highly unlikely that GEO Group can implement the CDC guidance in a rapid and thorough manner.” That includes personal protective equipment for detainees and guards, as well as social distancing measures and keeping high-traffic areas clean.

What have you heard from detainees about what's going on inside the facility?

Activists say there are an estimated 300 detainees that are now on a hunger strike. They're asking for humanitarian visas, an end to deportations during the pandemic, and to be released to their families.

It's unclear if that's still going on, but I talked to one detainee. His name is Jose Robles. He's an undocumented man who was previously in sanctuary at Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Seattle. He's been at the detention center for nine months. We talked over video chat.

Here’s what he said, translated in English:

“There's a lot of worry any day the sickness will arrive. And here, we are all locked up in the same area. They say nothing will happen, but come on. I hope to God it doesn't, but if it enters it will be hard for them to control it.”

What's the setup like inside the facility right now for detainees?

Robles also said that right now there are about 50 men in his pod. That’s two to a bunk, and the bunks are about two feet apart. They don't have hand sanitizer, but they do have access to soap and water.

He said they're not wearing masks or gloves, but he is trying to avoid other detainees who are coughing in his group. There are some people who are presenting cold symptoms, but no one has had a fever so far. Robles says he also hasn't seen ICE employees wearing personal protective equipment either.

How have things changed at the Northwest Detention Center since the outbreak began?

The detention center closed its doors to visitors back on March 15. They knew that family members coming in and out could jeopardize the health of all the detainees. So, they said "no more" to that. But legal representatives, of course, can still visit their clients, just not the general public.

You have to realize, you have around 1,500 people detained in one facility. If one person gets sick, it's really hard to do social distancing because of that setup of the facility. The beds are close, it's hard to keep everything sanitized, and there's only so many rooms for sick individuals to be separated into.

Has anyone at the detention center tested positive for coronavirus so far?

Not her, no. ICE says detainees have tested positive, but that's only been on the East Coast and not here in Tacoma.

What if someone does come down with symptoms? Have ICE officials said how they'll handle that?

The agency says they would keep positive COVID patients, or those who were having a fever or respiratory symptoms, in a separate medical room. They also said they are testing detainees at a commercial or public health lab if necessary. And if the detainees are very sick, they are sent to an outside hospital.

What about deportation flights, are those still happening?

Those are still taking place. What happens is, ICE officials drive detainees in a bus from Tacoma to the Yakima Air Terminal. Usually there's a group of local activists in Yakima who monitor how many people come on and off the plane.

But recently Yakima officials closed the airport to the public in order to keep up with those social distancing measures. The activists are now in an area nearby area and continue to monitor the ICE flights.

I talked to a Yakima city spokesperson. They said 49 detainees were flown out yesterday. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says they do visual and temperature screenings to make sure detainees don't have a fever before they get on the plane. But the agency hasn't given any indication it will stop deportation flights in the near future.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.