May 1, 2020 at 11:38 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
ICE releases two gay Cuban men with HIV

Immigration Equality and Lambda Legal say U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Thursday released from their custody two gay Cuban men with HIV.

The men — who Immigration Equality and Lambda Legal identified as Ramón and Iván — asked for asylum in the U.S. because they suffered persecution in Cuba “because of their political activism and sexual orientation.” The two men had been in ICE custody since last October.

Immigration Equality and Lambda Legal on Monday requested ICE release them from the privately-run IAH Secure Detention Facility in Livingston, Texas. The groups, along with Vinson and Elkins LLP, a Houston-based law firm, in their letter to ICE wrote the coronavirus pandemic put the two men at increased risk.

“We are relieved that Iván and Ramón don’t have to spend one more day in the dangerous conditions of ICE detention, terrified of contracting COVID-19,” said Immigration Equality Legal Director Bridget Crawford in a press release their organization and Lambda Legal released on Friday.

“We are happy they are now safe and free, but lament the fact they were not released months ago,” added Crawford. “ICE has a moral obligation to free other asylum seekers like Iván and Ramón. They can and should release every single one of them today.”  

Yariel Valdés González, a Washington Blade contributor from Cuba, spent nearly a year in ICE custody in the Deep South before his release from the River Correctional Center, a privately-run detention center in Ferriday, La., on March 4. Immigration Equality, Lambda Legal and other advocacy groups have demanded ICE release people with HIV and other detainees who are at increased risk for the coronavirus.

ICE on its website says there are 522 detainees with confirmed coronavirus cases. ICE also says it has tested 1,073 detainees for the virus.

A federal judge in California late last month ordered ICE “to identify and track all ICE detainees with risk factors” and consider whether they should be released.

ICE earlier this week told the Blade it has released “nearly 700” detainees “after evaluating their immigration history, criminal record, potential threat to public safety, flight risk and national security concerns.”

ICE’s website notes there were 29,675 people in their custody on April 25. ICE told the Blade the number of detainees in its facilities has dropped by more than 4,000 since March 1.

The Trump administration during a March 20 press conference announced the closure of the U.S.-Mexico and U.S.-Canada borders as part of its response to the pandemic. Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf also said undocumented immigrants will no longer be allowed into the U.S.

President Trump on April 22 issued an executive order that effectively stops immigration into the U.S. for 60 days. Activists and their supporters sharply criticized this directive, in part, because border closures and the suspension of international travel had already brought immigration to a halt.

“We are thrilled that Iván and Ramón can pursue their asylum claims without the fear of unnecessary and inevitable exposure to the coronavirus in ICE detention facilities,” said Lambda Legal Staff Attorney Puneet Cheema in Friday’s press release. “There are too many people who continue to be detained in detention centers, prisons and jails, who are not being given sufficient means and ability to protect themselves. These facilities have a responsibility to release as many people as they can, and keep those in their custody safe.” 

ICE on Monday defended its response to the pandemic.

“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. “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.”

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

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