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Press Release

March 24, 2020

Deportation Defense Houston calls on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to release everyone detained in Houston-area facilities in light of the public health emergency created by COVID-19.  The confirmation that a guard at the Montgomery Processing Center has tested positive for the virus underscores the danger that our clients face from immigration detention.

“It is imperative for public health that ICE release all people in detention immediately,” said Julie Pasch, Managing Attorney for Deportation Defense Houston (DDH).  “The fact that people in ICE custody in Houston have already been exposed to COVID-19 through a facility guard who has tested positive are extremely concerning and highlight the risk to our clients of remaining detained.”

People in immigration detention are already vulnerable to the spread of disease, especially those who are immunocompromised, and they don’t have access to adequate healthcare or living conditions.  The four Houston-area detention facilities have roughly 1,000 beds per facility.  Those who are detained live in dormitories that hold anywhere from approximately twelve to eighty people.  The U.S. government has suggested that people should not gather in groups of ten or more to prevent the spread of the virus.

The dangers of COVID-19 are exacerbated by the poor medical care in the detention facilities.  “Our clients routinely experience substandard medical care while they’re detained,” said Marisa Peterson, an attorney with DDH.  “They must submit multiple medical requests before they can see a doctor or nurse.  Our HIV-positive clients often have trouble obtaining antiretroviral medications.  We know from our clients’ experiences with medical care in detention that ICE is not equipped to handle this public health emergency.”  Inadequate medical care in ICE facilities has been a well-known problem for many years, as highlighted by Congressional investigations, dozens of lawsuits, and reports from the DHS Office of Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office.

“Now is the time to protect our communities,” said Elizabeth “Chiqui” Sanchez-Kennedy, Immigration Legal Services Director at YMCA International Services, a member of the DDH cohort.  “Many places, including Harris County, have released people from criminal custody after recognizing that keeping people contained in close quarters is dangerous to public health.  ICE needs to do the same for everyone in immigration custody.”  Immigration detention is civil, not criminal, custody, and ICE has the authority to release everyone currently detained.

In response to the growing COVID-19 crisis, Deportation Defense Houston demands that ICE release everyone in its custody to ensure the safety of people currently detained, and to protect the public health of our communities.

Deportation Defense Houston, a project of the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, is a cohort of four Houston legal services organizations who provide representation to people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Houston area.


Maira Sheikh, (512) 712-2364
Communications Director, Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative
Julie Pasch, (713) 261-5911
Managing Attorney, Deportation Defense Houston