April 28, 2020 at 12:34 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Advocacy groups urge ICE release two gay Cuban men with HIV

Two advocacy groups on Monday urged U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release two gay Cuban men with HIV from their custody because they are at increased risk for the coronavirus.

Lambda Legal and Immigration Equality, along with Vinson and Elkins LLP, a Houston-based law firm, on Monday made the request in a letter they sent to ICE on behalf of the two men, who are identified as Ramón and Iván.

A press release says the two men “were severely persecuted in Cuba because of their political activism and sexual orientation.” It also notes they have been ICE custody since last October.

Ramón and Iván remain in ICE custody at the IAH Secure Detention Facility in Livingston, Texas, which is roughly 75 miles north of Houston. Immigration Equality Legal Director Bridget Crawford in the press release says the coronavirus pandemic has put the two men at increased risk.

“Ramón and Ivan fled Cuba to seek safety in the United States and now they fear for their lives,” said Crawford. “ICE could release them today. They are both parole eligible with qualifying sponsors. But despite warnings from experts on the dire consequences of COVID-19 for people in detention, and the steps taken by jails, prisons, and judges in the criminal context to release those in custody, ICE and DHS continue to put these men in mortal danger. Instead of being treated with dignity, these asylum seekers have been shackled, kept in the dark about the COVID-19 outbreak, and denied basic necessities to keep themselves safe.”

Yariel Valdés González, a Washington Blade contributor from Cuba, spent nearly a year in ICE custody in Louisiana and Mississippi before his release on March 4. Valdés, who won asylum in the U.S. because of persecution he suffered as a journalist in his homeland, now lives with his family in Miami.

ICE: 360 detainees have tested positive for coronavirus

ICE on its website says there are 360 detainees with confirmed coronavirus cases. These include one at the IAH Secure Detention Facility.

A federal judge in California last week ordered ICE “to identify and track all ICE detainees with risk factors” and consider whether they should be released. The Immigration Equality and Lambda Legal press release notes the decision includes ICE detainees with HIV.

“It is impossible for people held in ICE detention to abide by public health guidance about social distancing and frequent hand-washing when they have limited access to soap and cleaning materials and are in frequent contact in small spaces with people who have potentially been exposed to the coronavirus,” said Lambda Legal Staff Attorney Puneet Cheema. “While no one should be subjected to detention by ICE simply because they seek asylum in the United States, in this precarious and extraordinary period where people who are detained are at increased risk of being exposed to COVID-19, ICE must let our clients — who are asylum seekers living with HIV — go.”

ICE on Monday declined to comment on the request to release Ramón and Iván.

“In March, ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) convened a working group between medical professionals, disease control specialists, detention experts and field operators to identify additional enhanced steps to minimize the spread of the virus,” ICE told the Blade in an email. “ICE has since evaluated its detained population based upon the CDC’s guidance for people who might be at higher risk for severe illness as a result of COVID-19 to determine whether continued detention was appropriate.”

ICE further noted it has released “nearly 700” detainees “after evaluating their immigration history, criminal record, potential threat to public safety, flight risk and national security concerns.”

“This same methodology is currently being applied to other potentially vulnerable populations currently in custody and while making custody determinations for all new arrests,” ICE told the Blade.

ICE also said the number of people in their custody has dropped by more than 4,000 since March 1.

Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf during a March 20 press conference at the White House announced the closure of the U.S.-Canada and U.S.-Mexico borders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Wolf also said undocumented immigrants will no longer be allowed into the U.S.

President Trump last week issued an executive order that effectively stops immigration into the U.S. for 60 days. OutRight Action International Executive Director Jessica Stern in response to the directive noted “immigration processes are largely frozen across the world; many borders remain closed and international travel is negligible.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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