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New Hampshire jail exposing vulnerable immigrants to COVID-19

For the Monitor
Published: 4/1/2020 6:00:22 AM

For many years I taught public health and medical school students that medicine treats illness but strong public health measures prevent disease in the first place. But many governmental leaders are not taking this reality to heart.

During this worldwide pandemic, few of us would anticipate that our government would unnecessarily expose people to coronavirus. But this is precisely what is happening in the Strafford County Department of Corrections in Dover.

For years Strafford has found it lucrative to obtain federal contracts to incarcerate people sent to them by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). It is the only facility in Northern New England to play such a role.

Strafford holds men and women being detained by ICE and CBP because they overstayed a visa or lack the means to document their status. Others have no charge against them but simply appeared at the border to request asylum, as they have a lawful right to do. They are now being jailed even though they played by the rules.

Few if any of the 66 people currently held at Strafford are accused of criminal behavior or pose a threat to public safety.

Yet they are the unwitting victims of a cruel experiment run by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that oversees ICE and CBP. The experiment goes like this:  Gather up a group of immigrants fleeing violence in their home countries. Jail them even when they have no criminal records. Hold them together in close proximity while a lethal pandemic ravages the nation. Give them no masks or protective equipment. Give them no advice on how to protect themselves. And then see what happens.

However inadvertent it may be, DHS and Strafford are treating vulnerable people as human guinea pigs. By detaining them together they knowingly and blatantly expose people to unnecessary health risks. Even possible death.

But the risks do not end here. Even as the pandemic rages, especially in the eastern United States, Strafford also has a DHS contract for Air Operations. Under this program ICE actually gathers additional immigrants, often 15 to 20 at a time, and holds them at the facility until deciding whether to fly them to other detention centers across the nation.

Unprotected, untested and untreated, these groups of detained people are at extreme risk to contract and spread COVID-19.  Because they comprise a group of people unnecessarily herded together against their wishes, and held with insufficient protections, they also pose a risk to others – Strafford employees, officers, bus drivers, and people in other facilities to which they are flown by Air Operations. New Hampshire residents, as well as those in other states, also are at risk because of these federal practices which can expand the contagion.

What is happening at Strafford is a public health disaster waiting to happen. People needlessly held in facilities are much more vulnerable to communicable diseases and are far less likely to receive adequate medical care. Authorities are not only failing to protect them, but by crowding people together DHS is making it even more likely that some will become severely ill from the virus and even die.

The health and public safety of all of us dictates that these detainees be screened and released to the homes of family members during this time of extreme emergency. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu needs to take proactive steps with ICE and Border Patrol to demand that Strafford jail not serve as the host of a needlessly cruel experiment that increases the threat of COVID-19 to all of us. 

(Dr. J. Larry Brown, an authority on public health risks to population groups, served on the faculty of the Harvard School of Public Health as well as Tufts Medical School. He and his wife live in New Hampshire.)

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