Dozens take to their cars to protest for ICE releases to avoid pandemic virus

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AURORA | A few dozen cars, outfitted in decorative signs and messages about freeing detained immigrants, circled the north Aurora detention center on Friday amid rising numbers of the novel coronavirus in Colorado and across the country.

“I want my dad free and healthy,” read one sign. “FREE THEM NOW” was plastered to another car.

There haven’t been any confirmed cases of detainees infected with the disease at the immigration detention center at 3130 Oakland Street, but activists and lawmakers alike worry that just one case could ripple through the center and others like it across the country. 

Ten detainees were isolated for 14 days in March at the facility, owned and operated by GEO Group Inc., for possibly being exposed to COVID-19. Two sources inside the facility told Denver Westword last week a guard tested positive for the virus.

Sofia Halpin, an organizer with Abolish ICE Denver, said her group has heard that possibly many more detainees have been quarantined for longer periods of time. An ICE spokesperson was not available for comment as of this publishing, but previously said the agency is “taking important steps to further safeguard those in our care.”

“ICE continues to incorporate CDC’s COVID-19 guidance, which is built upon the already established infectious disease monitoring and management protocols currently in use by the agency. In addition, ICE is actively working with state and local health partners to determine if any detainee requires additional testing or monitoring to combat the spread of the virus,” ICE spokeswoman Alethea Smock said in a statement last month. 

Abolish ICE’s Friday protest came with one main ask: that every person in the detention center be set free. “Our actions will escalate until every single person in the detention center is released into the care of their families and our community,” a news release from the group said. 

Halpin said she “wasn’t comfortable sharing tactics” about what actions the group would take next, but acknowledged that social-distancing had made activism challenging for obvious reasons. 

Abolish ICE led massive protests around the facility over the summer that attracted thousands of protestors who marched the streets around the facility and then later through the southeast Aurora neighborhood where warden Johnny Choate lives. 

Easy transmission of COVID-19 has forced activists to think differently about what it means to have power in numbers if people are supposed to be apart.

“It’s also shown us what’s possible,” Halpin said. 

Instead of marches, activists took to their cars to drive a short route around the detention center.

Aurora Congressman Jason Crow, who has been calling on more transparency in the ICE detention center for more than a year, said in a letter to ICE officials last week he wants people with non-violent immigration charges “who do not pose a public safety risk” freed from the facility and others like it. 

“ICE detention centers and their contract facilities are a hotbed for the spread of the coronavirus and are a tremendous threat to the health of the detainees, staff, and community as a whole,” Crow said in a statement. “If there are measures we can take to prevent the spread of the virus, we take them. That’s how this needs to work.”

Crow and 14 other lawmakers also pointed to previous infectious disease outbreaks as a source for concern about this new threat.

“The situation is compounded by our concern about the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s ability to protect the health and safety of detainees. Last year, detention facilities in Colorado, Arizona, and Texas instituted quarantines resulting from viral disease outbreaks among their detainee populations,” the letter said. “Despite these public health issues, ICE expanded their capacities and transferred detainees into facilities impacted by these outbreaks. At the time, ICE showed no indication that they would provide additional health care staff or resources to address the viral disease outbreak. At the end of the viral disease outbreak, CDC reported a total of 898 confirmed and 19 states reported probable mumps cases in adult migrants detained in 57 facilities (34 private company operated facilities, 19 county jails that housed detainees, and four ICE-operated) between September 1, 2018 and August 22, 2019. There were 33 confirmed cases among the facility staff.”

Reps. Ed Perlmutter, Diana DeGette, Joe Neguse of the Colorado delegation also signed on to the letter.

— SENTINEL PHOTO EDITOR PHILIP B. POSTON CONTRIBUTED TO THIS STORY