At a time when Oregon, Washington, and Ohio have announced public orders limiting mass gatherings as part of an effort to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has continued requiring face-to-face meetings with immigrants while their cases play out in court. Many of the people forced to stand in line are elderly — a group at high risk of becoming very sick from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Now, activists on the ground are calling on ICE to suspend mandatory in-person appearances during the COVID-19 pandemic. They say immigrants standing in line by the hundreds outside the Broward County ICE office in Miramar could be unnecessarily exposed to the virus.
"As scared as these people are of coronavirus, they're even more scared of ICE," says Maria Bilbao, an organizer with the immigration advocacy group United We Dream. Bilbao has been visiting Miramar for months as part of the volunteer coalition Miramar Circle of Protection.
The CDC recommends that older people avoid crowds and stay at home as much as possible. But taking those precautions becomes almost impossible for an immigrant because skipping a meeting with ICE could lead to deportation.
Bilbao says that not only are immigrants forced to stand in close quarters for hours, but also many of the elderly immigrants arrive on public transportation, further increasing their chances of exposure to coronavirus.
One elderly woman, Benita Alfaro, told New Times she worries about her health and that of her husband, whom she was keeping company during his check-in with ICE.
#Coronavirusflorida— Maria asuncion (@Mariabil) March 9, 2020
I wondering who is thinking in these elderly people and mothers with kids that are being forced to take public transportation, to report in #ice
Where DHS always appears when the #Miramar Circle Of Protection is present. distributing water or hand sanitize pic.twitter.com/3RRyqFXKVB
"We're all scared. There are droves of people here waiting with nowhere to go. We know how easily the coronavirus can be transmitted," Alfaro told New Times over the phone. "There's nowhere to wash your hands, we can't enter the bathroom while we wait, there are no hand sanitizers, and this line takes hours and hours."
Bilbao and other activists with the Miramar Circle of Protection have spent the week handing out hand sanitizer, along with water and snacks. According to Bud Conlin, president of Friends of Miami-Dade Detainees, the Broward ICE facility appears to have taken no safety precautions in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
"They are putting immigrants and their own employees at severe risk," Conlin says. "There's no signage to warn people to be careful, and no one is wearing masks."
Advocacy groups have long criticized ICE's Miramar facility, which lacks sufficient shade outside and offers only two functioning toilets to the hundreds of immigrants waiting in line. Like Bilbao, Conlin believes ICE should suspend all in-person meetings with immigrants until it's safe for them to attend. Conlin says the agency could simply coordinate check-ins over the phone for the time being.
ICE did not respond to New Times' questions regarding safety precautions or the possibility of alternatives such as phone or video check-ins.
The World Health Organization estimates the COVID-19 fatality rate in China for people over the age of 80 is nearly 22 percent. Last week, news broke that the Trump administration had overruled health officials who wanted to release stronger health guidelines for the elderly and physically fragile, including advising against nonessential travel. But the outbreak worsened, and the administration relented. This week, the CDC updated its guidance to include an advisory for the elderly to avoid travel and crowds.
Immigrants showing up for their check-ins can be — and often are — held in custody and then shipped off to a detention center if they are found to have violated any terms of their stay. Earlier this week, New Times reported about an ongoing quarantine at an ICE facility in Glades County. Several detainees were allegedly moved to a local hospital for COVID-19 testing, but ICE maintains that no one in its custody has been confirmed to have the disease.