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House committee seeks records in coronavirus outbreak inside Virginia immigrant detention center

Outside the Immigration Center of America detention center in Farmville, Va. The facility has experienced the country’s largest coronavirus outbreak inside an immigration detention center. (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)
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The House Committee on Homeland Security on Friday asked for records related to a widespread outbreak of the novel coronavirus inside a Virginia immigration detention center after a 72-year-old detainee there died while hospitalized with the disease earlier this week.

Also on Friday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s office said the nation’s top public health agency has agreed to conduct widespread coronavirus testing at the facility located in Farmville.

The facility has experienced the nation’s largest coronavirus outbreak inside a detention center, with 259 detainees — most of the population — being monitored for the disease, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In a letter to Immigration Centers of America, the company that operates the Farmville facility, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said his committee is concerned about how the outbreak has been handled since the first coronavirus infection was recorded there in late April.

“Farmville detainees report that they have been pepper sprayed and fired at with a ‘noise-distracting round’ in response to their protests on the spread of the coronavirus inside the facility,” Thompson wrote. “This is dangerous, as the use of irritants such as pepper spray can induce coughing, increasing a person’s chance of catching a respiratory illness such as COVID.”

Those allegations also were included in a lawsuit filed in federal court last month. That suit was filed a few days before Northam (D) and both of Virginia’s U.S. senators asked President Trump to allow the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to get involved.

Thompson’s letter requested, among other things, details about the transfer of 74 detainees into the facility in June, people the lawsuit claims were not tested for the coronavirus beforehand.

Immigration Centers of America referred questions from The Washington Post to ICE, which declined to comment on Thompson’s letter.

But ICE officials confirmed that James Thomas Hill, a Canadian national held at Farmville since the spring, died Wednesday night, nearly a month after he was hospitalized with covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in Lynchburg.

ICE officials said the cause of Hill’s death is still under investigation, though he had been experiencing shortness of breath when he was hospitalized. The agency said no other Farmville detainees are currently hospitalized.

“ICE is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody and is undertaking a comprehensive, agencywide review of this incident, as it does in all such cases,” the agency said in a statement.

The death sparked a fresh wave of outrage among immigrant advocates over how the pandemic has been handled inside the Farmville facility and other immigrant detention centers.

In particular, ICE’s willingness to transfer detainees between facilities during the pandemic has allowed the disease to spread, those advocates said.

“That is directly what led to this man’s death,” said Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, legal director of the Immigrant Advocacy Program at the Legal Aid Justice Center, which is representing some of the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit filed in Alexandria’s U.S. District Court.

Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said that the CDC agreed last week to conduct widespread testing at the facility after the governor appealed to Trump for assistance. CDC officials didn’t immediately respond to messages on Friday.

“While the state is unable to enter this property without permission from the facility, the Governor has pushed for months to gain access for increased testing and disease management,” Yarmosky said. “In fact, the Department of Health has repeatedly attempted to assist with testing but has been denied by this center.”

ICE has said it has taken “extensive precautions” to limit the spread of coronavirus among its detainees, including regular testing and adding more hand-washing stations inside its facilities.

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