U.S. Reps. Sylvia Garcia, Joaquin Castro call on ICE to release migrants in immigration detention centers as coronavirus cases surge

The South Texas ICE Processing Center in Pearsall, Texas. Robin Jerstad for The Texas Tribune

U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, and Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, on Monday called on Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release a number of detainees at risk of catching the new coronavirus and to increase testing at its facilities.

The Texas lawmakers, in a call with reporters on Monday, described a pair of immigration detention centers as prison-like after they visited the South Texas ICE Processing Center in Pearsall and the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley.

As cases surge in Texas and the pandemic rages on, the representatives said, ICE should release all detainees who are not a safety risk and who are more vulnerable to contracting the virus.

“The conditions are bad. These people are living in a petri dish,” said Castro, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which hosted the call.

Across the nation, detention centers have become hotspots for the coronavirus, putting immigrant families and ICE officers at risk of contracting the virus.

Last month, the GEO Group — which runs the immigration detention center in Pearsall — came under fire for a lack of transparency in its efforts to prevent spread of the coronavirus within its facilities and the outside community. In early May, the immigration detention center was linked to more than 90% of Frio County’s confirmed COVID-19 cases.

“ICE barely lifts a finger to make sure that these folks are safe,” Castro said.

Unlike other hotspots like nursing homes and prisons, ICE has yet to do comprehensive testing for staff and detainees, nor do they have a directive to do so from the White House, Castro said. One of the detention centers has a rapid COVID-19 testing machine, but it’s constantly passed around between centers, Castro said. He argued that by now the immigration detention centers should each have at least one machine so they can test detainees, ICE employees and anyone else who enters the facility.

“The conditions are terrible for these folks," Castro said, adding that ICE isn't "doing their job and are doing a disservice to their employees and to the people who are detained and imprisoned at these facilities by not taking proper medical precautions."

ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Garcia said she’s not convinced recommended health protocols are being followed within the detention centers, though ICE employees told her they were.

While detainees wore cloth masks, Garcia said, they were mostly crowded in rooms where they couldn't socially distance. The detainees she spoke with told her the masks weren’t distributed until about two weeks ago ahead of the their visit and that mask mandates are rarely enforced for detainees or staff, she said.

“Even if half of it is true, it’s still not a good scenario because it looks like it was window dressing for our visit,” Garcia said.