Can you shame the shameless?


In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.  Stokely Carmichael

Last week the United States government deported 150 people to India, among them were 76 people from Haryana State. Upon arrival 22 of those people tested positive for COVID-19. On Tuesday of this week, the United States deported 30 people to Haiti. Eight of those people tested positive while in detention in the U.S. in late April or early May. None of them had been retested before being put on a flight. As I write now, those deported are being quarantined and retested in Haiti – where access to tests is in short supply. 

On Sunday, May 24 Santiago Baten-Oxlaj died after being detained at the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia. He was the third person to die in the last three weeks with COVID-19.  Like the other two to die, Oscar López Acosta, and Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, he was facing “criminal removal,” meaning he had committed a crime in the United States, completed a sentence in a U.S. jail or prison for that crime, and was then picked up by ICE to be deported. The “crimes” that led to months-long detention, and ultimately death for these three men, were a conviction for drunk driving, years old drug possession charges, and crossing the border without papers for a second time. Certainly, they had done nothing to warrant a death sentence, which the 25,911 people in detention as of May 23rd are now facing. They should all, I repeat, ALL, be released to shelter in place with family. For those who don’t have family, there are community sponsors lined up to assist. This must be done now. We’re basically out of time.

ICE has tested about 10% of the people in custody – 52% of those tested, 1,392 people as of May 29, have tested positive. Despite months of warning, ICE has done next to nothing to change its procedures. They have provided almost no protective equipment. Indeed, two men working for a private contractor in a Monroe, Louisiana facility, where staff were told not to wear face masks, are now dead. ICE has continued to move people around from facility to facility within the United States. Even those they know have COVID-19. They have continued to deport people – from these facilities, to countries around the world. 

In the process, ICE is confirmed to have deported people with COVID-19 to Haiti, Mexico, Jamaica, Colombia, India and Guatemala. ICE has very likely sent people with coronavirus to Ecuador, Brazil, Honduras and El Salvador, as well, and possibly even Nicaragua, which sees very few deportations, but did have a flight last week that originated from the Alexandria, Louisiana Staging Facility – the site of the worst staff COVID-19 outbreak in the system.  ICE has done such a bad job at containing the virus within its detention facilities, that it is becoming impossible for them to put together a flight without people who have been exposed. They are supposedly testing more under pressure from recipient countries, but can’t even do that right. In the last two weeks, ten people arrived in Guatemala with COVID-19 on deportation flights after ICE assured the government that all had been tested. This was at least the fourth deportation flight to Guatemala that included people testing positive for COVID-19 upon arrival. The president of Guatemala suspended flights from the U.S. for the third time last week, and was, for the first time, publicly critical of the U.S. government for showing such disrespect to his country.

The next day, the United States deported 25 children to Guatemala anyway. 

Immigration and Customs Enforcement was already a pretty unpopular agency before COVID-19. Thus far, in the context of a global pandemic, ICE has conducted itself with a “callous indifference” to the conditions of the people in its custody. It is not a secret, of course, and so, ICE’s non-handling of containment related to COVID-19, the deaths in custody, and the absurdity of not just deporting people, but strong arming governments critical of the practice, have all resulted in criticisms far and wide. From members of Congress, to the editorial boards of major newspapers and foreign leaders  – people have spoken out to halt deportations and drastically reduce the number of people in detention. Nothing has changed. 

As the quote above suggests, it is nearly impossible to tweak the conscience of people who have none. That is the situation we are facing with immigration enforcement in this country. The people responsible are indifferent to the consequences of their practices. Checks and balances are not working. The administration simply refuses to answer questions, or lies to Congress with impunity. Federal courts are the one venue where practices have been challenged successfully, but upon appeal, the Supreme Court has sided with the Trump administration more often than not.

So, how to shame the shameless?

You can’t. You can’t reason with people who have constructed a highly profitable immigration gulag out of lies and misinformation. And you can’t stop them from putting all of our lives at risk by failing to enforce the most basic health precautions against COVID-19. They do not care. 

What can we do? We can out maneuver them. First, while the national scene seems hopeless, at the local level people are winning fights, getting people released, and moving local, county and even state governments to push back against the ICE enforcement machine. The people in power in D.C. will not be there forever, and to dismantle what they have wrought we will need a vocal constituency to keep up the pressure once they are gone. Local action builds that national constituency one campaign at a time. Check out the #FreeThemAll campaign for connections.

Second, there is the creation of a parallel infrastructure. There now exists an expansive ecosystem of support for migrant communities in this country – from a national network of community bail funds, to shelters, to sanctuary churches and sanctuary cities providing a wide range of services. The government cannot really touch these things. The folks in the White House can complain, demonize and misinform, and curtail state support where it exists. But they can’t stop this process. 

Finally, in all of this work there are efforts to build out. The immigration rights movement is significant – and has grown tremendously as a result of Trump’s all out war against immigrants. That said, we can’t win alone. In freeing people from detention, we build common cause with the prison abolition movement. In organizing to support immigrant workers fighting wage theft and abuse in the workplace, we reach out to labor organizers. Together we all can fight climate change – a major driver behind forced displacement, and we must speak out against the brutality of war and our government’s foreign policy more generally that contributes to forced displacement and bankrupts us here at home. 

I don’t honestly care one bit what Trump thinks at night when alone, or whether he regrets the cruelty he has sought to normalize for political gain. I doubt such self-reflection is possible for him. What keeps me up at night is thinking about how to make his point of view irrelevant.  We might not find a conscience there to tweak, but we do outnumber them. Let’s not ever forget that and work together to make the world we want to see.

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