Doctors Launch 24-Hour Nationwide Protest Calling For Release Of Immigration Detainees Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

Healthcare workers are launching 24-hour protests outside U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers across the country this week to demand the safe release of detainees amid the coronavirus pandemic.

As of Wednesday, 881 ICE detainees had tested positive for coronavirus at facilities across the U.S., with 42 workers at detention centers also testing positive for the virus.

The agency saw the first death of an ICE detainee due to coronavirus earlier this month, with Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, 57, who died shortly after testing positive for the virus. Two guards at a detention facility in Louisiana also died after contracting the disease.

Now, physicians with Doctors for Camp Closure, an immigration advocacy group, are calling on ICE to release all detainees, to help prevent more deaths.

Starting on Wednesday, doctors and other health care workers are expected to protest outside at least nine facilities across the U.S. for 24 hours, representing the long shifts medical professionals are working to care for the millions of people infected with COVID-19.

Protests are expected to start in San Diego, California, on Wednesday morning, with future pickets planned throughout the week in California, Michigan, Texas, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Oregon and Colorado. Some will see doctors hold vigil outside the facilities for 24-hours, while other demonstrations will be shorter.

Speaking with Newsweek on Wednesday, Dr. Marie DeLuca, a New York emergency room doctor who co-founded Doctors for Camp Closure, said that immigration officials have a role to play in preventing the coronavirus pandemic from spreading.

"We are organizing these protests because as healthcare workers, we have seen the effects of COVID-19 on our patients," DeLuca, who works across two hospitals in New York City, said. "I've treated many patients with COVID. I've had patients who had died from this disease and I've seen how devastating it is for communities and for families and just how frightening and deadly it is as a disease."

But while we now know the devastating impacts coronavirus has had on U.S. communities across the U.S., DeLuca said, "we also know that there are many people who are still being kept in immigration detention facilities and that there are hundreds of cases of COVID in the facilities."

"It's dangerous for the people who are held inside because there's no way for them to socially distance, which is the recommended strategy from the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] to prevent the spread of COVID. They also don't have access to good medical care or proper hygiene," DeLuca said. "So, they're being held in a situation where they can't stay safe."

That is why, the ER doctor added, "we are urging the government to release all people from ICE detention facilities, because it's the only way for us to keep both the people who are in detention facilities and those in their surrounding communities safe."

"Viruses don't respect borders. They can travel beyond walls," she said. "Guards go in and out of these detention facilities daily and spread illness into these detention facilities and then back out in to surrounding communities."

Already, DeLuca said, "there are not enough resources to take care of people who are very, very when we have people held in detention that means those people are going to get sick in large numbers and that is going to overwhelm the system."

Asked whether she had any concerns about calling for the release of all detainees, when ICE has pointed out that some have previously been convicted of serious crimes, DeLuca said that ultimately, all detainees have a right to life.

"As a doctor, I take care of people regardless of any court proceedings or legal rulings. When someone comes into a hospital I take care of them. When someone comes into a hospital in police custody, I take care of them. When someone comes into a hospital from incarceration, I take care of them," she said. "So my job is to care for everyone during times of crisis and times of emergency. That's what I do in the emergency department.

"Right now, we have a pandemic and that is a massive public health crisis. It is an emergency," DeLuca said. "So, i think that what I can comment on is as a doctor, is that we know these detention facilities are not safe."

As DeLuca noted, already ICE has been ordered to release at least 192 detainees as of April 24 as part of court orders mainly ordering the release of detainees vulnerable to COVID-19 amid the pandemic.

However, she said, the release of dozens of detainees "is not enough."

"These protests have been put together quite quickly because we recognize that what's happening in detention facilities is an emergency and this kind of response is needed," DeLuca said.

The difference, the doctor said, could be life or death for detainees, guards and communities living outside ICE facilities.

"I've taken care of families where multiple family members were sick and often one family member was very seriously sick. I had patients die from this disease," she said.

As medical care professionals, she said, physicians and other frontline workers are "used to working in a world where have treatments because we know what the diseases we are working with are."

In the case of COVID-19, she said, "it's very hard not to have those tools."

"I still get quite sad thinking about the people we are caring for and about the people that we have lost," she said.

That is why, the doctor said, she and other healthcare workers will be taking part in demonstrations throughout the week as "safely as possible."

The demonstrations, she added, will be small with only a few protesters "socially distanced from one another and wearing masks."

"We're going to be taking a lot of precautions because we don't want to be continuing the spread of COVID-19," she said.

ICE Protest
A woman in a mask attends a car protest demanding to release ICE detainees amid the coronavirus outbreak on April 24, 2020 in New York City. Doctors are planning to take part in protests calling for the release of detainees in May. Pablo Monsalve/VIEWpress/Getty

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