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Advocates call for ICE detainees' release at Batavia amid threat of possible COVID-19 outbreak

A barbed-wire fence lines the outside of the Buffalo Federal Detention Center in Batavia, NY.
Noelle E. C. Evans | WXXI News
A barbed-wire fence lines the outside of the Buffalo Federal Detention Center in Batavia, NY.

Advocates and immigration lawyers are calling for the release of detainees at the Buffalo Federal Detention Center in Batavia amid concerns of a possible COVID-19 outbreak inside.

Rosa Santana is the program director at First Friends of New Jersey and New York near Newark, New Jersey. The project works directly with about 250 detainees and operates a hotline. 

She says that on Thursday, March 12, two Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees from Bergen County Jail were transferred by bus to Batavia with about 40 to 50 other detainees from Essex and Hudson county jails.

It wouldn’t be newsworthy, except that a corrections officer at Bergen later tested positive for COVID-19 after showing symptoms on March 15, three days after the transfer.

According to jail staff, the corrections officer reportedly had no contact with the detainees.

When asked about this specific case, ICE spokesperson Khaalid Walls responded with a statement regarding general measures across the agency in response to the crisis. These include temporarily suspending social visits in all detention facilities.

Jennifer Connor with Justice for Migrant Families says it's not enough.

“Even under normal circumstances, people’s health suffers in detention and people with chronic illnesses worsen while detained in Batavia," Connor says. "It is not intended to be a place of health and Batavia is not equipped to handle a health crisis."

During a media tour of the Detention Center in Batavia in September 2019, a WXXI reporter noted that the facility has a medical unit with three medical observation rooms suited for quarantine and observation of contagion.

Whether or not the detainees from Bergen County Jail had contracted the virus, advocates like Connor say the situation demonstrates an imminent threat of outbreak within detention centers. 

They and some members of Congress, including Democrat Ilhan Omar and 14 others, are calling for the immediate release of all detainees in detention facilities across the U.S.

Noelle E. C. Evans is WXXI's Murrow Award-winning Education reporter/producer.
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