EL PASO — A Texas-based immigrant rights group sounded alarm bells Friday about recent immigration enforcement raids it said have created fear within the immigrant community and will result in sick immigrants not seeking medical attention should the new coronavirus strike the borderlands.
There have been at least six raids by immigration officials in El Paso County in the past two weeks, said Fernando Garcia, the executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights. Garcia and other advocates said the enforcement is ill timed as the pandemic has cloaked the country in uncertainty and fear. The raids targeted small, Latino-owned businesses in the community, he said.
“We have a list of documented cases. We’ve talked to the business and the people, and all of that has been verified within our own internal process,” Garcia said.
The organization prepares annual reports on enforcement and use-of-force incidents and investigates claims of abuse or government overreach in immigration enforcement.
“We have the names of the business, we have talked to the owners and we have the names of employees,” he said. “That is the way we have done our traditional documentation campaign. Now the next step for us is to sit down with ICE and demand they stop these enforcement actions.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in El Paso said the agency does not conduct enforcement operations at medical facilities “except under extraordinary circumstances.”
“Claims to the contrary are false and create unnecessary fear within communities. Individuals should continue to seek care for medical conditions,” spokesperson Leticia Zamarripa said. She added that the agency, "like other law enforcement agencies with a detained population, is taking important steps to further safeguard those in our care and, as a precautionary measure, ICE is temporarily suspending social visitation in all of its detention facilities."
She also highlighted a back-and-forth between the administration and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus last week. In a letter, the caucus asked the administration to suspend enforcement near medical facilities for the sake of public safety.
"ICE does not conduct operations at healthcare facilities," a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson responded on Twitter. "Anyone in need of medical care should seek care."
When asked about ICE’s policy on medical facilities, Garcia said the immigrant community will remain skeptical without a clear message from the Trump administration.
“Older immigration actions have actually created a very bad narrative. The [immigrant community] is indeed afraid to go to clinics, to go to church, to go to schools because of these actions,” he said. “What we’re asking ICE is to come out publicly and say they’re not going to conduct enforcement in these specific places so people can listen to them directly. This pandemic is going to hit the region and going to stay here for months.”
There haven’t been any confirmed cases of the coronavirus in El Paso County, but local leaders declared a state of emergency Friday in preparation for its arrival. The El Paso Independent School District extended spring break by one week for its students, and functions at city centers like museums and libraries have been postponed.