The pandemic has exposed inhumane health and sanitary conditions in US jails and prisons; advocates and some lawmakers have responded by calling on governments to release at-risk people from incarceration, with limited responses from some jurisdictions. But the tens of thousands of people held in immigrant detention are at similar risk, and immigration rights activists want most of them to be released.
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal agency responsible for enforcing immigration law, has so far failed to respond on any significant scale. Its facilities often lack basic resources like soap or healthcare services, and their quarantining methods for sick patients flout public health guidelines. Activists argue that the majority of people in immigrant detention can be safely released, since only a small fraction are suspected of serious crimes.
On April 13, a group of attorneys filed a federal lawsuit in Miami against ICE and the US Attorney General, stating that the agency’s practice of “cohorting” sick people is helping to spread coronavirus “like wildfire” in the facilities.
People detained in ICE facilities are held together in crowded dorms by the dozens. Per ICE’s policy, symptomatic people are removed and put in isolation. The remaining people in the dorm are “cohorted” together for 14 days, monitored by staff for any signs of sickness. If someone else shows symptoms, they are removed and the dorm continues to be cohorted for another 14 days until no one is symptomatic.
Of course, as has been widely publicized, people can carry the virus without showing symptoms. And cohorting people in a small dorm, where keeping a safe distance is impossible, all but guarantees that the virus, if present, will spread. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) directly cautions against this kind of practice.
The attorneys suing ICE say that instead, any detainee potentially exposed to the virus should be placed in an individual unit with their own bathroom. This is likely impossible, because ICE facilities don’t have enough space. “In these settings, hundreds, and potentially thousands of people will become infected, and many will die,” said Joseph Shin, one of the attorneys.
Enter #FreeThemAll. This campaign by Detention Watch Network is one of many to seek the immediate release of people held in immigrant detention to protect them from coronavirus.
“The government can and should release all people from detention immediately,” the group writes. “People locked up in immigration detention are extremely vulnerable to the spread of infectious disease due to their deprivation of liberty, deteriorating health while in detention, and the track record of fatally flawed medical care in Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) custody.”
A look at the numbers: ICE currently detains over 32,000 people. Over 13,000 are “Convicted Criminals”, while the remainder have pending criminal charges or other immigration violations. This means that most people in detention have no criminal record, and reports show that convictions are predominantly for misdemeanors or petty offenses. The majority in detention are not subject to mandatory detention, and about 6,000 have completed the first step to seek asylum. ICE has so far reported 72 people detained in its facilities testing positive for coronavirus.
Despite this, ICE has taken only small steps towards mitigation. It has identified 600 detained people it considers “vulnerable” to the virus, and has released somewhere over 160 of that group.
Advocates say that the agency has the authority to release far more people. “The question is whether the government will actually exercise this and mitigate what continues to be a very foreseeable disaster,” said Eunice Cho of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Around the country, there have been some small wins. In California, a person detained at the Otay Mesa facility in San Diego was denied their request for release by a judge on April 8, but three people were released from the Adelanto facility after a legal aid clinic intervened on their behalf. A federal judge has ordered 43 people released from detention in Bristol County, Massachusetts in response to a lawsuit.
The Miami lawsuit was itself filed after a Jamaican national, healthy with no pre-existing conditions, was released from the Krome ICE facility because his lawyers argued he was in “imminent danger.” The attorneys are pushing for the wider release of people from three Florida facilities. If ICE can release one healthy person, what’s to stop the release of thousands more on their own recognizance?
The former acting head of ICE, John Sandweg, himself agrees. “By releasing from custody the thousands of detainees who pose no threat to public safety and do not constitute an unmanageable flight risk, ICE can reduce the overcrowding of its detention centers, and thus make them safer, while also putting fewer people at risk,” he wrote in an op-ed for The Atlantic.
He explained that doing so protects not just people held in detention, but the general public. An outbreak of coronavirus in one facility is sure to spread to ICE agents and officers, medical staff and other workers. They will then take it outside the walls of the facility to their community, where it will spread to their families, friends and neighbors.
“ICE can, and must, reduce the risk it poses to so many people, and the most effective way to do so is to drastically reduce the number of people it is currently holding,” Sandweg wrote.