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story.lead_photo.caption FILE - In this July 8, 2019, file photo, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer looks on during an operation in Escondido, Calif. Pressure is mounting on the Trump administration to release people from immigration detention facilities where at least one detainee has already tested positive for COVID-19. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)

WASHINGTON -- Pressure was mounting on the Trump administration Wednesday to release people from immigration detention facilities where at least one detainee has tested positive for covid-19.

Advocates fear that tight quarters and overall conditions could cause rapid spread of the virus.

The U.S. holds about 37,000 people in immigration detention. Detainees and advocates say many are vulnerable because of age and preexisting medical conditions, and because they are often held in open rooms, beds 3 feet apart, and without adequate supplies of masks or other protections.

"It's impossible to stay calm," said Marco Battistotti, an Italian who is among 170 people detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Bristol County jail in Massachusetts. "People are panicking. People are in fear."

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The 54-year-old Battistotti was among about 100 detainees at the county jail near Cape Cod who signed a letter released by a local immigration lawyer detailing conditions inside. They asked to be released to await decisions on their immigration cases.

The agency, which reported the positive test of a 31-year-old man from Mexico held in Bergen County, N.J., on Tuesday, has announced steps to protect detained migrants and staff members from the virus, but it hasn't said whether it plans to review cases for possible release because of the outbreak. It did not immediately respond to a request to comment on the complaints about conditions from the detainees and their advocates.

The administration has tried to balance its immigration policy and its response to the outbreak, with ICE announcing previously that it would "temporarily adjust" operations to focus on apprehending people who pose a risk to public safety or are subject to mandatory detention because of criminal records.

Immigration advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, are filing lawsuits in California, Maryland, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, seeking court orders for the immediate release of people in immigration detention, especially those at risk because of their age or medical conditions.

Advocates have also asked a court in Los Angeles to order the Office of Refugee Resettlement to release to eligible sponsors about 1,200 migrant children who were apprehended without parents or legal guardians and have been held in government-contracted shelters for more than 30 days. They said two staff members at two such facilities in New York have tested positive for covid-19.

It's unclear how many immigration detainees overall are at higher risk, but one California suit alone had 13 plaintiffs, all over 55.

A panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Monday, citing the "rapidly escalating public health crisis," ordered the immediate release of a 37-year-old woman who is fighting deportation to Mexico.

The woman's lawyer, Max Carter-Oberstone, said the government told him it would not oppose the decision, but she still had not been released as of early Wednesday. The court took the action on its own initiative in a rare move on behalf of a woman who says she has been threatened with death by members of a Mexican drug cartel.

"It wasn't something we asked for or were expecting," Carter-Oberstone said. "The court is clearly reacting to the greater public health crisis that we're in right now and reevaluating how it's going to dispose of its immigration cases in light of that crisis that we're all experiencing."

Information for this article was contributed by Amy Taxin of The Associated Press.

A Section on 03/26/2020

Print Headline: Advocates call for U.S. to free migrants

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