WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) and Congresswoman Veronica Escobar (D-TX) led 49 of their colleagues on Wednesday in sending a letter to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Acting Secretary Chad Wolf demanding the release of detained children amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As the number of children in HHS custody infected with COVID-19 continues to increase, the lawmakers stress the need to protect the health and safety of children in U.S. custody.
“There are currently nearly 2,400 children in Office of Refugee Resettlement’s (ORR) within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) custody, including licensed shelters. According to public health experts, people in confined spaces ‘are at special risk of infection, given their living situations,’ and ‘may also be less able to participate in proactive measures to keep themselves safe, and infection control is challenging in these settings.’ We are especially concerned that most ORR facilities require children to share bedrooms, bathrooms, and dining spaces, which make remaining at least six feet apart difficult to observe,” the lawmakers wrote. “Unsurprisingly, the virus has spread quickly and has now infected at least 40 children in ORR custody and 69 self-reported ORR contractor staff and foster parents. The ongoing crisis, inability to protect themselves, and mounting cases in ORR custody expose these children to significant stress.”
They continued, “Children are some of the most vulnerable among us, and we must fulfill our moral and legal obligations to protect their health and safety. These conditions are dangerous for any individual in detention—let alone vulnerable children in our care. Keeping them in needlessly prolonged detention poses immeasurable risk to their lives and the lives of their loved ones.”
Along with Harris, the letter was signed by Senators Tom Udall (D-NM), Ed Markey (D-MA), Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI), Bob Casey (D-PA), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Tom Carper (D-DE), Tina Smith (D-MN), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL).
Along with Escobar, the letter was signed by Representatives James McGovern (D-MA), Karen Bass (D-CA), Sylvia Garcia (D-TX), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), Adriano Espaillat (D-NY), Jamie Raskin (D-MD), Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ), Joe Neguse (D-CO), Danny K. Davis (D-IL), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Deb Haaland (D-NM), Hank Johnson (D-GA), Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-FL), Michael San Nicolas (D-GU), Bill Foster (D-IL), Grace Napolitano (D-CA), Peter Welch (D-VT), Gerald Connolly (D-VA), Diana DeGette (D-CO), Darren Soto (D-FL), Frederica Wilson (D-FL), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Joe Kennedy, III (D-MA), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Nanette Barragán (D-CA), Albio Sires (D-NJ), Mark Pocan (D-WI), Judy Chu (D-CA), Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ), David Cicilline (D-RI), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA).