Mar 26, 2020 1:30 PM

Trump administration urged to free migrants as virus surges

Posted Mar 26, 2020 1:30 PM
Image courtesy U.S. Office of Homeland Security
Image courtesy U.S. Office of Homeland Security

WASHINGTON (AP) — Pressure was mounting on the Trump administration Wednesday to release people from immigration detention facilities where at least one detainee has tested positive for COVID-19 and advocates fear tight quarters and overall conditions could cause rapid spread of the virus.

The U.S. holds around 37,000 people in immigration detention. Detainees and advocates say many are vulnerable because of age and pre-existing medical conditions, and because they are often held in open rooms, beds 3-feet apart, and without adequate supplies of masks or other protections.

“It’s impossible to stay calm,” said Marco Battistotti, an Italian who is among 170 people detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Bristol County jail in Massachusetts. “People are panicking. People are in fear.”

The 54-year-old Battistotti was among about 100 detainees at the county jail near Cape Cod who signed a letter released by a local immigration lawyer detailing conditions inside. They asked to be released to await decisions on their immigration cases.

“I don’t want to die in an ICE jail,” he said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. “Why can’t I fight my case on the outside?”

The agency, which reported the positive test of a 31-year-old man from Mexico held in Bergen County, New Jersey, on Tuesday, has announced steps to protect detained migrants and staff from the virus, but hasn’t said whether it plans to review cases for possible release because of the outbreak. It did not immediately respond to a request to comment on the complaints about conditions from the detainees and their advocates.

The administration has tried to balance its overall hard line on immigration, a signature policy of President Donald Trump, and its response to the outbreak, with ICE announcing previously that it would “temporarily adjust” operations to focus on apprehending people who pose a risk to public safety or are subject to mandatory detention because of a criminal record.

Immigrant advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, are filing lawsuits in California, Maryland, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, seeking court orders for the immediate release of people in immigration detention, especially those at risk because of their age or medical conditions.

It’s unclear how many detainees overall are at higher risk, but one California suit alone had 13 plaintiffs, all over 55.

A panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Monday, citing the “rapidly escalating public health crisis,” ordered the immediate release of a 37-year-old woman who is fighting deportation to Mexico.

The woman’s lawyer, Max Carter-Oberstone, said the government told him it would not oppose the decision, which the court took on its own initiative in a rare move on behalf of a woman who he says has been threatened with death by members of a Mexican drug cartel.

“It wasn’t something we asked for or were expecting,” Carter-Oberstone said. “The court is clearly reacting to the greater public health crisis that we’re in right now and re-evaluating how it’s going to dispose of its immigration cases in light of that crisis that we’re all experiencing.”

The situation in immigration detention, which include facilities run by local jurisdictions and private contractors, is similar to that facing jails and prisons, with staff also at risk from a virus that already has sickened at least 55,000 people and killed about 800 in the U.S.

One difference is that more than half of ICE detainees have no criminal charges or conviction and are held only for immigration reasons. Under previous administrations, many would likely have been released on bond as they pursued their cases.

ICE has reported one positive test of an employee at a detention facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and 18 confirmed cases among staff not involved in detaining migrants. A contractor reported a positive case of a staff member at a facility in Harris County, Texas. The agency says it is screening new detainees and isolating detainees who show symptoms of the coronavirus disease.

Detainees say those measures won’t do much, with people staying in dorm-like bays with no social distancing possible or in smaller rooms that they sometimes have to clean themselves, with insufficient cleaning supplies.

Francisca Morales Diaz, a 45-year-old from Mexico who was released Friday from an ICE detention center in Louisiana, said she and others were issued soap and toilet paper for their own use once a week and they would run out. When they complained, she says they were told there were shortages on the outside as well.

“There isn’t enough medicine. It’s not well-maintained,” Morales told AP. Her fear is that “at any moment, they’re going to come and take me back there.”

Ira Alkalay, a lawyer representing some of the detainees at the jail near Cape Cod, said the detainees are responsible for cleaning their unit, which includes a dining area and bathrooms, but aren’t even given bleach. Some who signed the letter suffer from respiratory ailments such as tuberculosis, emphysema and asthma that put them at higher risk to the virus.

“These are not sanitary conditions at all,” Alkalay said. “If the virus is introduced, many people could get sick all at once. Hospitals in the area can become quickly overwhelmed.”

The office of Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, who has made headlines for offering to send the jail’s ICE detainees to help build Trump’s promised border wall, has stressed there are currently no confirmed or suspected cases of the virus at the facility.

“We suspect these detainees are working with outside political activist groups to use the coronavirus crisis to advance their political agenda,” the sheriff’s spokesman, Jonathan Darling, said this week.

Eunice Cho, an ACLU lawyer, said the confined spaces and limited medical treatment in many immigration jails made them especially vulnerable — and if the virus spreads through one facility, the number of sick people who would require advanced care could overwhelm area hospitals. Many ICE jails are in rural areas with smaller hospitals.

“This is closely related to the public health of our entire community,” Cho said.

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Mar 26, 2020 1:30 PM
Coronavirus-related crimes capitalize on global fear, panic

Attorney General William Barr says the Justice Department has already launched investigations into people who are hoarding supplies and price gouging.  Barr says, “If you are sitting on a warehouse with surgical masks, you will be hearing a knock on your door."

WASHINGTON (AP) — Thieves steal surgical masks. A clinic sells fake COVID-19 tests. Hate groups encourage sick members to infect law enforcement officers. Imposters pose as public health officials. Con artists peddle fake cures and financial scams.

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads, so too do the crimes related to it — transgressions that capitalize on fear, panic and the urge to lay blame, and add to the burden on law enforcement agencies trying to protect vulnerable citizens.

“It is really disheartening in a time like this that someone would take advantage of the community and take them in a time of need,” Tucson, Arizona, Police Sgt. Pete Dugan said.

Everyday life has essentially stopped in many countries in a bid to slow the virus, and some crimes have been declining. But reports of virus-related fraud are on the rise, along with concerns about hate crimes.

U.S. President Donald Trump and others have taken to calling the virus the “Chinese coronavirus,” even as scientists say the disease has nothing to do with Asian ethnicity. But the president dismissed the idea that his comments could fuel hate crimes.

“It’s not racist at all,” Trump has said.

In Los Angeles, a 16-year-old boy of Asian descent said other students bullied him and accused him of carrying the virus. In New York, a man on the subway sprayed an Asian passenger with Febreze and verbally abused him. State Attorney General Letitia James set up a hotline for New Yorkers to report hate crimes in the country’s outbreak epicenter.

The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks hate groups, blames the virus for elevating racist and anti-Semitic messages, including suggesting that Jews are somehow responsible for the pandemic. Some hate groups have suggested tainting doorknobs or other surfaces with the virus so FBI and police officers fall ill.

“If any of you get this, I expect you to spend as much time as possible with our enemies,” one wrote.

Hundreds of masks have been stolen in Portland, Oregon, amid shortages for health care workers. A Missouri man who was coughing told two store clerks he had a high fever. He was arrested after police said he threatened to give the employees coronavirus. People in Pennsylvania and Illinois were accused of similar crimes. Texas prosecutors brought charges against someone who falsely claimed on social media to have tested positive for COVID-19.

Counterfeit COVID-19 test kits intercepted at Los Angeles International airport -photo courtesy U.S. Customs and Border Protection

In a memo issued Tuesday, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen told prosecutors they could charge people who threaten to spread the new coronavirus under U.S. terrorism statutes because the Justice Department considers it a “biological agent” under the law. In such cases, suspects could be charged with a number of offenses, including possessing or developing a biological agent as a weapon, he said.

“Threats or attempt to use COVID-19 as a weapon against Americans will not be tolerated,” Rosen wrote in the memo to U.S. attorneys across the country and the heads of all Justice Department agencies, including the FBI.

Meanwhile, police in Bowie, Maryland, are investigating reports of a man wearing an orange vest and blue surgical mask who approached people at two homes claiming to be inspecting for coronavirus. He actually entered one home before a resident confronted him. A similar scam was sweeping through Germany.

The World Health Organization and other authorities are also working to debunk spurious claims about possible cures. They include false assertions that silver, bleach, and garlic could protect against the coronavirus, or that bananas prevent it.

In Uganda, the parliament speaker endorsed a businessman who said he had discovered a chemical that “instantly kills” the virus. Speaker Rebecca Kadaga announced that the businessman had offered to produce the “treatment” in Uganda and it would go on the market shortly.

Kadaga’s comments were widely mocked because the product is actually a disinfectant, according to the Ugandan firm that will produce the chemical, not to be ingested.

New York officials recently ordered the Jim Bakker television show to stop marketing colloidal silver products. Trump himself falsely suggested a drug typically used to treat malaria patients had been cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the coronavirus.

Fraudsters purport to collect contaminated banknotes in South Africa. And police busted a clinic selling false testing kits in Kenya.

The United Kingdom’s National Fraud Intelligence Bureau has received more than 100 reports of virus-related scams, with losses totaling more than $1.1 million (970,000 pounds).

“We have already seen fraudsters using the COVID-19 pandemic to scam people looking to buy medical supplies online ... and targeting people who may be vulnerable or increasingly isolated at home,” Graeme Biggar, director general of the National Economic Crime Center in the U.K., said in a statement.

In the U.S., the Justice Department created a central fraud hotline (1-866-720-5721 or [email protected]) and has ordered U.S. attorneys to appoint special coronavirus fraud coordinators.

Meanwhile, marketing schemers have quickly pivoted to offering “senior care packages” that include hand sanitizer or even a purported vaccine, which doesn’t exist. Some falsely claim that Trump has ordered that seniors get tested.

It’s all a trick to get personal information that can be used to bill federal and state health programs, health officials said.

“It’s a straight-up ruse to get your Medicare number or your Social Security number under the guise of having a test kit or a sanitary kit sent to you,” Christian Schrank, assistant inspector general for investigations at Health and Human Services.

The worldwide outbreak has sickened more than 350,000 people and left more than 15,000 people dead. For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The World Health Organization says criminals are increasingly posing as WHO officials in calls and phishing emails to swipe information or money. The United Nations also set up a website to help prevent fraud.

But the warning came too late for an 83-year-old woman in Mannheim, Germany, who was convinced by scammers to hand over a five-figure sum, claiming it was for a relative who had fallen ill. Police, who would not give an exact figure on the stolen euros, said the woman was told that a driver would pick up the money from outside her front door, to avoid possible infection.

By the time she got suspicious, the money was gone.

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