Metro Weekly

Advocates urge ICE to release two gay asylum seekers living with HIV

Recent federal court ruling ordered ICE to release detainees who could be "immune-compromised" by COVID-19

ice, hiv, immigrant

Puneet Cheema, an attorney representing the two asylum seekers – Photo: Lambda Legal.

LGBTQ advocates have submitted a letter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement demanding the release of two Cuban asylum seekers living with HIV from detention in order to prevent them from contracting COVID-19 while in custody.

The letter, submitted by Lambda Legal and Immigration Equality, along with co-counsel Vinson & Elkins, demands that the men, referred to by the pseudonyms “Ivan” and “Ramón” to protect their identity, should be released from the IAH Secure Detention Facility in West Livingston, Texas.

The advocates say the men’s HIV status puts them at increased risk of becoming seriously ill or even dying from illnesses related to the COVID-19 virus — which is more likely to fester in crowded spaces like those in immigration detention centers.

Both Ivan and Ramón have been detained since coming to the United States in October 2019 after fleeing Cuba, where they were persecuted because of their political activism, their sexual orientation, and their HIV status. They fear retaliation at the hands of their persecutors should they be sent back to Cuba, as well as at the hands of ICE or IAH staff.

In their letter, Lambda Legal and Immigration Equality point to a court order issued last week by U.S. District Court Judge Jesus Bernal, of the Central District of California, which orders ICE to “identify and track all ICE detainees with risk factors” that would make them more vulnerable to severe illness or death should they become infected with COVID-19, and determine whether such individuals should be released.

Bernal’s order specifically mentions groups at higher risk of health complications, including people over the age of 60, those who are pregnant or have given birth in the past two weeks, or those “of any age having chronic illnesses which would make them immune-compromised,” which would include HIV.

See also: Members of Congress demand information on HIV status being used to justify family separations

“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,” Lambda Legal Staff Attorney Puneet Cheema said in a statement.

“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.”

“Ramón and Ivan fled Cuba to seek safety in the United States and now they fear for their lives,” Bridget Crawford, the legal director of Immigration Equality, added. “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.”

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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