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With Confirmed COVID Case In N.M. ICE Facility, Congress Members Call For Release Of Detainees

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ICE detention facility in Otero County, N.M.

Reports are emerging of people held in crowded ICE detention facilities around the country testing positive for the coronavirus. In New Mexico, a man who'd left the Otero County Processing Center told KVIA-TV this week that a young boy inside had contracted COVID-19, a report that was later confirmed by ICE officials. Immigrant advocates in New Mexico and elsewhere have been calling on ICE since March to create plans to prevent outbreaks and to release people most at risk of serious illness. On Wednesday, U.S. Representative Deb Haaland joined a coalition of Congress members in calling for the release of non-violent people who are being detained.


KUNM: ICE is releasing people on a case-by-case basis. Is that enough given overcrowding of these facilities, the bad medical care, the shortage of supplies nationwide, and the urgency of the situation? Is that enough?

REP. DEB HAALAND: When you say case-by-case basis, you know, I can't even imagine how long that takes, right. We need to stop the spread of this virus. That is our top priority in this country, in this entire country, and that includes our immigrant communities. We do ourselves a disservice by not paying attention to this issue, because it spreads like wildfire.

KUNM: Like wildfire. In fact, one man from Otero County Detention Center reported today that a young boy in a cell they shared with 40 others went into convulsions and was later diagnosed with having COVID. Have you or your staff heard of any new cases in New Mexican detention centers?

HAALAND: That's reason why we joined this letter, that's the reason why we're advocating for these folks to be released. Yeah.

KUNM: What would you like to see happen?

HAALAND: The most important thing right now is to stop the spread of this virus. We found out -- when we were advocating for this, to prevent this outbreak in these areas -- the DHS department staff provided a briefing to committee staff on March 20, and it only exacerbated our concerns for the safety and well being of the detainees. ICE officials then conceded during the briefing that they didn't have a contingency plan for coronavirus treatment if local hospitals became overwhelmed. And that's exactly what's been happening across the country, right?

KUNM: We've been talking about human rights violations in terrible conditions inside ICE detention facilities for years. Little action has been taken to improve the situation. So, this is sort of like a ticking time bomb. Is there anything at all the Congress can do to change that, in the way so ICE could be ordered by someone other than the President, his administration, or a judge, to address these problems?

HAALAND: We're not necessarily having hearings, but we're having meetings over Zoom and over conference calls. You know, if we were in session right now, the Oversight Committee would require ICE to come before us in a hearing, right. The Oversight Committee, nonetheless, we can demand answers. We can keep hammering on them to do what they need to do to act on this issue.

KUNM: What are you and your colleagues in D.C. developing, in terms of ideas for the future? There's a new normal now, one that has not yet been defined. People want more equity, inclusion, opportunity and rights. Are you and your colleagues creating or even listening to new ideas of how to approach these issues that we face once we beat back the pandemic?

HAALAND: Everybody should be able to go to a doctor when they are sick. That has been highlighted, if nothing else has, during this pandemic. We need more equity. It is too inequitable. So a lot of these issues, yes, we're taking them to heart, and we are working hard.


This is an excerpt from a longer interview that originally aired on our show Your NM Government. Catch it every weeknight at 7:30 p.m. here on KUNM, or find it wherever you get your podcasts. Your NM Government is a collaboration between KUNM, New Mexico PBS and the Santa Fe Reporter.


Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.
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