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Opinion: Colorado legislators must regulate immigrant detention centers

On Wednesday, an ICE employee at the GEO-owned Aurora immigration detention facility tested positive for COVID-19. Last week, 10 immigrants at the facility were isolated after possible exposure to the virus.

The outbreak that advocates and health officials have predicted for the past few weeks is igniting. 

We echo the calls from multiple advocacy groups to consider alternative forms of detainment, including supervised release and other non-custodial manners for individuals who are at high risk of serious effects from COVID-19. 

Dr. Carlos Franco-Paredes

As health professionals on the ground, we know the spread of coronavirus in detention centers is unavoidable, especially when we factor in both public and private detention center’s history with medical negligence. Parallel to the growing pandemic, each day brings a new horror story of medical malfeasance, lack of adequate care and even preventable death due to incomplete treatment or care failures within the detention centers.

Our Colorado representatives have a moral obligation for the good of immigrant health and public safety to ensure standards of care in both private and public detention centers across the state.

There are endless examples to cite. While detained at GEO’s Aurora detention center, Rene Lima Marin slipped and fell, hitting his face against a steel toilet. He called for medical attention, but guards remained complacent for more than an hour.

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After finally being taken to an emergency room, physicians let him know that he had fractured multiple bones in his face and would need surgery within a week to avoid permanent impairment.

Lima-Marin never got that procedure because ICE never brought him back to the hospital, nor did they give him the strong pain meds he was prescribed.

In the same detention center, Miguel Angel suffered a broken hand at the hands of a GEO guard in March 2019 that never received treatment, and endured numerous quarantines after several outbreaks of mumps, measles and chicken pox inside of the center.

Influenza vaccine which is considered a crucial public health intervention is also not routinely administered to detainees, resulting in some preventable deaths occurring inside detention centers. 

In September 2019, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued a scathing report on the rampant medical neglect and maltreatment at GEO’s Aurora ICE facility. As one attorney said, “The conditions at (the Aurora detention center) represent that worst of what currently plagues our society and government. GEO Group is profiting off caging people and denying them conditions consistent with human decency, including basic medical care.”

Despite the continued evidence of abuse and immorality, GEO reported a net income of $33.4 million in the fourth quarter of 2018 and is valued at $2.3 billion.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

It is not just GEO inflicting unnecessary pain and suffering. In August, immigrants detained in Teller County Jail in Colorado and in Adelanto, Calif., filed a lawsuit against ICE and the private-detention company for their failure to provide adequate medical care and a failure by authorities to provide accommodations for disabilities.

The indecency of the clear lack of adequate medical care for immigrants by private companies in Colorado is matched only by our government’s unwillingness to administer any real oversight and regulation on detention centers.

There are no reasonable alternatives being implemented and a clear insufficient amount of staffing. Our federal government has left it up to cities and states to step up and take action. 

Our Colorado representatives have a responsibility to call for the release of detainees who are at high-risk of coronavirus, to stop the continued detainment of immigrants and asylum seekers, and ensure that those in detainment have access to preventive measures, quality healthcare, medical testing and treatment without co-pays or additional costs.

To do so, Colorado representatives must pass the Inspection of Facilities Housing Immigrants Act, which will bring all detention centers in line with standards of care already established by the state and protect the health and safety of all. It would mandate inspections of these facilities and reports to the state legislature.

Besides the humanitarian premise and the moral justification for the release of detainees in the midst of the ongoing epidemic in the U.S., the potential medical impact that COVID-19 may produce among detainees may become devastating and it may require major financial investment by ICE. Therefore, anticipating the impact of this epidemic inside immigration detention facilities justifies exploring alternative strategies to reduce its impact in U.S. soil.

The prompt release on parole of detainees with medical conditions at risk of severe disease and death due to coronavirus infection may reduce the impact of this outbreak among immigration detention facilities. This intervention may also effectively reduce the potential spillover of the outbreak from a detention center into the community. 

For the good of our public health, and to act with decency and morality, we must demand robust health, safety and human rights standards for all immigrants in Colorado detention centers.

Dr. Franco-Paredes is currently an Associate Professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Colorado, Anschutz Medical Center. He is an infectious diseases clinician with expertise in tropical medicine and neglected tropical diseases and vaccine-preventable diseases. 

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