Warren, Booker, and Sanders Push DHS to Investigate Allegations That Officers Threatened Asylum Seekers With COVID-19 Exposure

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A group of US senators is urging the Department of Homeland Security to investigate allegations that guards at immigration detention centers beat asylum seekers into submitting to their own deportations. “The allegations of violence and brutality against vulnerable refugees seeking safety here in the United States are unlawful and disturbing,” they write in the letter. 

Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) sent the letter Thursday to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and ICE’s Acting Director Tae Johnson. 

The senators’ concerns stem in part from a recent story by the Intercept that uncovered how guards at two ICE detention centers threatened asylum seekers with exposure to COVID-19 if they didn’t submit to a “voluntary” deportation. As the Intercept reported Feb. 6:

Three Cameroonian asylum-seekers locked up at the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center in Louisiana say that a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement guard threatened to expose them to Covid-19 if they failed to obey his orders and submit to a transfer. The guard made the threat clear, Clovis Fozao, one of the detained men, told The Intercept: If the detained migrants didn’t submit, they would be transferred to Bravo-Alpha, the detention unit where coronavirus-positive detainees are held in quarantine. 

“They were forcing us out of the dorm, pushing and dragging us,” Fozao said, explaining the altercation when the guards tried to force them to submit to the deportation. “They threatened to call the SWAT team. They said they were going to put all of us into Bravo-Alpha, which is for quarantine, where they keep everyone with coronavirus.” 

The senators wrote out 18 specific questions regarding multiple incidents in the past year. They ask for details about what ICE has uncovered in its own investigations, for audio and video of the alleged incidents, and specifics on how ICE ensures that those who are contracted to house immigrants in detention are following protocol to keep asylum seekers safe. 

“While abuse and neglect in ICE facilities has been endemic for years, these incidents have happened with disturbing regularity and severity under the authority of the New Orleans ICE Field Office in particular,” the letter reads. “ICE officials and contractors must be held accountable if they have refused to treat people in their custody consistent with basic human dignity and with DHS rules and regulations. Asylum-seekers should not have to choose between brutality at home or brutality while seeking asylum. They should have access to a safe, dignified, and lawful environment, including being protected from contracting COVID-19 during the global health emergency.” 

This alleged abuse was not exactly an isolated incident. “Over the past two years, similarly horrific abuses and conditions were reported,” the senators write, citing six stories by my colleague Noah Lanard. Noah has tracked at least a dozen incidents of guards pepper-spraying detainees, sometimes in response to simple requests for soap

The senators give DHS and ICE until March 11 to respond to their questions. 

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