On Tuesday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that over the last month they arrested 2,000+ people as part of a massive national operation. Until recently, ICE picked up about 10,000 people a month anyway (a number that fell briefly to just over 5,000 in June as the result of the then acting director of ICE, Matthew Albence, reducing enforcement activity in the context of the coronavirus pandemic). The pandemic is still around, but Albence is now gone. When ICE engages in such large scale enforcement actions, ICE agents are more likely to pick up a lot of people who have not been convicted of any crimes. ICE’s own reporting indicates that only 50% of those they picked up in this latest operation had a criminal record, which means 50% did NOT. Below I try to parse some of the latest numbers, and critique ICE’s intentional misdirection about “criminal aliens.” We continue to demand that ICE #FreeThemAll; find out how you can get involved below.
In recent months, the percentage of “convicted criminals” in ICE custody has increased. This is because the closure of the border and Title 42 expulsions have dramatically reduced Customs and Border Protection transfers. As I wrote last week, people who are picked up at the border now are summarily expelled with no access to due process. From March through July the administration expelled 105,000 people in this way, all but 200 along the southern border. The result is less people being transferred into ICE’s detention network from the border, and thus a fall off in the number of people held in detention overall. People picked up at the border are far less likely to have a criminal record than those swept up in ICE raids or on detainers at the local jail. Thus, as the number of people being transferred from the border falls, the proportion of those in detention with a criminal record goes up.
Of course, even if the proportion of those with a “criminal conviction” is going up, the whole framework is misleading. The category of criminal activity responsible for the most removals is “traffic violation,” followed by “traffic violation with DUI.” Combined these categories represented over 140,000 charges compared to the 1,800 “homicides” in 2019. Indeed, traffic violations have been the biggest ticket item for years – beginning with the Bush administration’s crack down post 9-11. Which is to say, never in the history of ICE has serious criminal activity been the leading cause for removals. Never. This is not to say the driving drunk is no big deal – indeed, some of the “homicides” could be the result of drunk driving. The point is that the actual profile of criminal activity leading to removal is very different from the image ICE sells to the U.S. public in the guise of MS-13 foot soldiers and sex traffickers.
That said, some of the people picked up by ICE have committed crimes that most would consider serious. There are a couple of points to emphasize here. First, if someone has been convicted of a crime, by the time ICE gets a hold of them they have already served their sentence. The reason ICE is focused on them is NOT the crime itself, but their citizenship. If they were a citizen, with time served, they would just be going home. Indeed, people who end up in criminal removal may in fact be permanent residents, or otherwise legally present in the United States. However, because they are not a citizen, and now have a criminal record, they are deportable under Clinton-era immigration policy.
The second point is that the focus on criminality creates massive confusion about what is going on. No one in ICE custody is there to serve a criminal penalty. No one. ICE detention is administrative. People are being held while an immigration court, or administrative agency decides whether they can stay in this country or not. Some people are in detention because a determination has already been made that they cannot stay, and they are awaiting deportation. That is it. If they have previously been convicted of a crime, the sentence has already been served. If they have been charged, but not yet gone to trial, one cannot classify them as a criminal. Immigration detention is thus not making communities safer. Quite the opposite.
Admittedly, the number of people in ICE detention is way down – 21,000 now compared to 53,000 at the beginning of the fiscal year (Oct. 1, 2019). I explained last week this is because of the border closure reducing transfers into ICE custody, coupled with the fact that ICE keeps deporting people despite the inherent risks of spreading COVID-19 to other countries. 21,000 is still a huge number of people, however, and our long standing position that they should ALL be released stands. The risks of maintaining people in this carceral state are enormous. The New York Times recently published a detailed map, tracing coronavirus infections. The report included a segment on “clusters,” or concentrated areas where infection rates are high. Of the top 100 cluster sites, 90 are prisons, jails or detention centers (the other ten include nine meat processing plants, and one navy ship). ICE’s latest operation is thus irresponsible: Our carceral immigration system is a public health disaster, no one is made safer by putting more people into it.
Take Action: #FreeThemALL
It is clear that Trump is not changing course any time soon. But we still need to put pressure on the administration where we can. If you have not done so yet, you can send a message to your members of Congress asking them to support the Immigration Enforcement Moratorium Act here.
We also invite you to join in the National Days of Action being sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee and Detention Watch Network from September 9 – 13. You can register as a partner for these actions, check-out their organizing toolkit, and get more information here.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement released new, more comprehensive datasets this week (this link updates regularly – I’m accessing August 23) regarding the number of people in detention and those participating in the “alternative to detention” program – which is principally ankle-monitoring. The numbers have fallen off pretty dramatically since last year. Fiscal year 2020 began on October 1, 2019 with approximately 53,000 people incarcerated by ICE. There are 21,007 people in ICE custody as of August 15, 2020. Of these, 20,785 are in adult detention facilities, and 222 are in Family Residential Centers – which means a mix of adults and children who are a part of family units. That is an enormous decline – and certainly in other times would be cause for some cautious optimism. However, in the current context this number reflects trends outside of ICE’s detention network that are seriously disturbing: Massive summary expulsions at the border and ongoing deportations.
People transferred to detention facilities (“book-ins”) come from two main sources: arrests at the border, and internal removal operations. In recent years the number of people transferred from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) constituted a majority of people in detention (73% in FY 2019). Now, these transfers are a much smaller portion of those in custody. Of the 3,986 people booked into ICE custody thus far in August, for example, only 736 were transferred from CBP, or 18%. Back in October the percentage of people booked-in from CBP was 54%, or 13,303 of 24,728. Looking at month to month trends, we can see that the CBP numbers drop off dramatically from March to April of this year and this is due to one primary cause: Title 42 removals.
Title 42 removals are in essence, summary expulsions from the U.S. under the framework of a Center for Disease Control order concerning border controls as a response to COVID-19. At the southern border this has meant a halt to all “non-essential” travel across ports of entry (including applications for asylum), and the immediate expulsion of anyone crossing between ports of entry. People who are picked up by CBP are now simply removed, with no due process. In most cases they are not even given identification numbers (an “A” number) that would allow them to be tracked and contacted by family members. Indeed, if people arrested are from Mexico or Central America they are removed by land immediately – in essence, simply pushed back across the border with no more processing than a name check. For people from the Caribbean, Africa and Asia, where they end up is far from clear. Some have been pushed back into Mexico as well, even though Mexico initially refused to accept them. Others, children and families in particular, have been placed in hotels in Texas until they can be removed. Finally, because they are not processed the same as before, others just disappear into Border Patrol or U.S. Marshall custody until they can be expelled. Advocates working with people from Haiti, for example, have been unable to find them between the time of arrest and their expulsion.
So, long story short, the fall off in the number of transfers from CBP, and hence a major source of the decline in ICE detentions, is not the result of more humane treatment at the border, but quite the opposite. From March 18 through the end of July, more than 105,000 people had been expelled under Title 42.
The number of book-ins is also down because ICE reduced – they did NOT suspend – internal removal operations. From March to June the number of people transferred to detention facilities as a result of ICE internal operations fell about 50% – from 10,153 in March to 5,608 in April and to a monthly low of 5,090 in June. There is a backstory here as well. On March 18, 2020, the acting head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Matthew Albence, issued a statement declaring, “[t]o ensure the welfare and safety of the general public as well as officers and agents in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic response … [ICE] will temporarily adjust its enforcement posture.” The statement was not vetted by administration officials, and apparently folks in the Trump inner circle were angry. Though Albence was no humanitarian, it is probably not a coincidence that he then announced his retirement in July under pressure from the Miller wing of the immigration Stasi. Also, probably not a coincidence, in July the number of ICE transfers into detention from internal removal operations began to creep back up, and so far in August are at a pace to go over 8,000 for the month.
As noted ICE was holding about 53,000 people at the beginning of the fiscal year. There have been 169,811 book-ins since then. 21,007 people remain in custody. That means close to 202,000 people have left ICE custody over the year. Where did they go? Most were deported. ICE reports 173,358 removals so far this fiscal year. To be clear, this does NOT include the 110,000 people removed through Title 42 expulsions – which by and large are tracked and enforced by Customs and Border Protection, not ICE.
We, and others, have written extensively about ongoing deportations during COVID-19. Last week a few new pieces came out documenting how deportations are spreading COVID-19. The Miami Herald also published an investigative article into the companies making money from the process, which we also discussed here.
So, there is little to celebrate in the fall off in detention to a near twenty year low of 21,007. Rather, it is the result of inhumane, possibly illegal, summary expulsions at the border, a temporary reduction of ICE enforcement operations (which was good news, but fleeting), and the administration’s decision to continue to deport people all over the world despite just about everybody from the New York Times, Washington Post and Boston Globe, to members of the House and Senate, to literally hundreds of human rights organizations and thousands of others telling them to stop. Given that the administration has now reached the bottom in terms of Border Patrol transfers, and ICE seems prepared to increase internal removal operations again, this number is likely to begin increasing again.
Immigration Nation is a 6-episode docuseries on Netflix. Filmmakers embedded with ICE for 3 years give us a behind the scenes look at ICE as it has shifted and expanded under the Trump administration. Episode 1, Installing Fear, weaves the stories of ICE officials with interviews of affected migrants and their family members. The result is an impactful look into the practices of ICE agents and how the people who are the targets of enforcement actions are affected.
The first agent we are introduced to is Scott, ICE Deputy Field Office Director, as he oversees Operation Keep Safe — a week long operation to bring in “fugitive aliens.” In 2003, there were 8 Fugitive Operations units and now there are 129. He is asked about people calling ICE agents Nazis and racists and he says, “We’re used to it. I love my job. I have a good stable home, make good money. To be called a Nazi, a racist, it’s…ignorant. We don’t pick people based on race, color, religion, we just look for people who are removeable.”
Another agent we meet is Judy. She says, “We constantly look like the bad guys when all we are doing is enforcing the laws and doing our jobs. It gets to me sometimes because I just feel like we have no respect.” Working for ICE for 12 years, Judy says the agents used to have “priorities” they had to follow, but “now the administration has changed and we’re finally able to do our jobs.” She is referring to the Obama administration’s focus to prioritize undocumented immigrants who had committed serious crimes. Now, under Trump, agents can focus on anyone with an immigration violation.
We are shown migrants who are being detained at the border and separated from their minor children. The series then switches back to NYC, where Judy is interviewed in her patrol car and says, with relief, that she and her fellow agents aren’t involved in the terrible business of family separation. She then knocks on the door of a family, politely asks the father to step into the hallway and explains that he is being detained and will be deported. The whole time, his small child is crying. The mom asks the officer if he can say goodbye and she allows it. He hugs his crying daughter until the mom has to pull her out of his arms and he is taken away. Although the hypocrisy is obvious to the viewer, somehow this agent has been able to separate what she is doing fromwhat is happening at the border. The reality is that she separated that father from his family.
One agent talks about walking into a donut shop and having an employee ask if the agent remembers him. The agent says the man looked familiar, but he wasn’t sure why. The employee says, “You deported my mom.” The agent replies, “I’m sorry, how long ago was that?” The answer: “Last week.” The agent admits that after a while, the people just run together and he stops seeing each individual. He then points out that he was in the military saying, “I was a soldier; I do what I’m told.”
Another agent profiled seems to recognize the unfairness of the current system and says that the immigrants he picks up are “just got caught up in politics.” He insists he doesn’t pick collaterals because it’s not fair (collaterals are people detained other than the “target” of a warrant. Under Obama, agents were directed to not pick up collaterals. The Trump administration has reversed that directive). We see him driving a man he has taken into custody who asks him, “Were you born here?” The agent gets quiet and eventually says, “That’s irrelevant really.” But the question highlights the injustice. Either the agent was born here and just by the luck of being born in one place versus another, he is the one placing the other man in cuffs; or he himself was born in another country, but because of different policies or circumstances, he was able to migrate to the US legally, while the man in his custody was not. The agent clearly recognizes this injustice, but continues doing his job.
Interviews with human rights lawyer Becca Heller are interspersed through the episode. She explains, “The brilliance of any bureaucratic system whose net result is fear and terror is that it’s big enough to break it down such that everyone just thinks that they’re only moving papers or only doing a little piece. A very small number of people at the top have designed the [immigration] system such that an incredible amount of terror results but those people [enforcement agents] are completely divorced from that.”
One agent noted that the laws change and those changes come from above, outside of the system itself. But, he says, “It’s written law. You just have to follow it.” He feels no responsibility for the laws or their impact, just their enforcement.
Interjected between portrayals of the agents, we are introduced to migrants, particularly Erin and Josué. Erin fled his home with his daughter when his wife was murdered in front of his daughter. At the border, she was separated from him and he just cries as he says he has no idea where she is or who is taking care of her. He has family in the United States and is eventually reunited with her. We see them boarding a bus to get to their family. He asks his daughter what happened while they were apart and she says the agents just kept telling her she would never see him again.
Josué left Honduras and made it to Mexico with his wife and 1- and 3-year-old children. He didn’t have enough money to pay a coyote to bring all 4 of them across the border, so his wife and the 1-year-old stayed in Mexico and he and his 3-year-old crossed. They were detained and his son was taken from him. In his interview, he explains that he has no idea where his 3-year-old is and that he hasn’t been able to communicate with his wife in Mexico.
Josué says that in his hometown “gringos” would come visit his church and they were so kind. He was optimistic about coming to the United States because of the kindness he had experienced. But now that he is here, he wonders, “Where are the good Americans?”
[Editor’s note: The update below comes before the full scope of Tropical Storm Laura’s damage is known, though local impacts in the Gros Morne area were not severe. Nationally, La Nouvelliste reports 9 people have died and many are without power and/or have been left homeless in the wake of the storm. It is too early to know the longer-term impact of flooding on the upcoming harvest. We will have a further update as we learn more details.]
After more than 5 months at home, students began a staggered return to the classrooms of Gros Morne in mid-August. The latest academic calendar calls for about 50 days of instruction, to somehow cobble together what the students have missed after more than 100 days out of the classroom, and then final exams in mid-October. It is by no means a perfect, or even adequate, system, but people are managing as best they can in order to salvage the academic year. While the students were out of the classroom, Lekol Jezi-Mari and St Gabriel’s School in partnership with Mercy Beyond Borders kept students engaged by broadcasting lessons on local radio stations. The radio signal reaches into the mountains of the 8 communal sections of Gros Morne, so even students who were sent to stay with family members in the countryside could continue with their lessons, to some extent.
These plans for a truncated academic year are happening against the backdrop of what is proving to be an active hurricane season. The first few storms to graze Gros Morne brought rain and strong winds, but thankfully no more serious damage than uprooted gardens so far. Hurricane Isaias uprooted avocado and plantain trees out in the communal sections, and Laura uprooted the corn crop in some areas of the Gros Morne region. Farmers lament the loss of their gardens so close to the big summer harvest, since for the majority of families in Gros Morne, “working remotely” means working in the countryside in their family gardens. A good harvest enables them to send their children to school and put food on the table. Without a harvest of any kind, their families will suffer from hunger and will remain stuck in the cycle of generational poverty with no way forward. But thanks to support from the agronomy team, farmers are able to have some hope for the next planting season with good quality subsidized seeds provided by the local seed bank. This is made possible by partners like Quixote Center and Mercy Focus on Haiti, which enabled the Grepen agronomy team to purchase seeds to assist farmers in all 8 of the communal sections throughout the spring and summer planting season. This vital support enabled farmers to have hope amidst all of the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic, and now gives them hope again after the destruction of their gardens during the tropical storms.
Public hand-washing stations remain well-utilized around Gros Morne, and schools that did not previously have hand-washing stations rigged up their own, in preparation for the return of students. People wear masks when required, in order to enter schools, banks, and churches, but mask-wearing in the local open air market and on the streets in general has been sporadic. Churches officially reopened in mid-July, but funerals have been held throughout the pandemic, with increasing frequency, it seems. Many people have had coronavirus symptoms, but testing capacity to confirm whether they actually have covid-19 is lacking. There is a natural tea which seems to provide relief from the symptoms of coronavirus, which is how the majority of people locally are coping with this illness.
The borders of Haiti reopened at the end of July, but the exchange rate has ballooned to an abysmal 125 HTG to 1 USD. As salaries remain fixed, families struggle to respond to their decreasing purchasing power. Basic provisions of rice, beans, and oil for a family of 6 for the month now cost about the equivalent of $50 USD, which is unsustainable for the majority of families. Teachers in some departments have begun to strike as they demand a living wage, yet another legitimate concern and stumbling block for this plan to salvage the school year.
The lack of economic activity is causing old grievances to explode in one communal section in particular. Out in the far reaches of the mountains of the Pendus area, houses have been burned and people shot, as an old feud heats up amidst the desperation and despair that so many are feeling as the pandemic continues to negatively impact economic opportunities. Many young people from Gros Morne who were working or studying at university or technical school in the larger cities of Gonaives, Port-de-Paix, and Port-au-Prince returned home to the countryside where things seemed more stable during the crisis point of the pandemic, and these students have slowly begun to return to the cities in search of a way forward as schools reopen. Young people returned in droves from the Dominican Republic as well, since coronavirus prevention measures blocked the majority of them from continuing to work or study there. Now they wait to see what opportunities will present themselves, but as coronavirus cases fluctuate and tropical storms blow, the winds of change haven’t yet come to relieve people from the grasp of the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
Those seeking to immigrate to the United States do not take the decision lightly. The journey is too often mired in trauma brought on by discrimination and exploitation, and too many of their stories go unheard. Asylum seeker Lino, whom I recently interviewed, was not an exception to this rule. We explore his background as well as his migration story, both linked to an emerging understanding of himself as a lesbian in his childhood, followed by later embracing his identity as a trans man.
Lino was born in 2001 in a small Garifuna (Afro-Indigenous) minority community in Honduras. Due to colorism and anti-blackness within his community, he experienced racism, discrimination and marginalization throughout his entire life. Even as a child in school, Lino and his Black classmates were separated from the “white” Honduran students. These white students had better educational resources, while teachers and students alike would discriminate against the Black students due to the color of their skin, going so far as to forcibly cut off Lino’s afro. In addition to Lino’s race, he was discriminated against because of his sexual orientation as a lesbian, the brutality of which led to his mother disenrolling him from school around the age of 13.
While Lino stayed home, he was sexually abused by his older sister’s ex-boyfriend and despite telling trusted individuals, no one seemed to believe him. In the midst of repeated abuse, apathy, and indignation he learned to remain silent against his abusers. At age 15, Lino began to date a 28 year old woman. This displeased his parents. His mother supported his sexual orientation; however, his father was disgusted and began to physically abuse Lino’s mother for her solidarity. Eventually, Lino’s father abandoned them and left the mother, Lino and his sister to care for themselves. As Lino found jobs to support his family, he also experienced a lot of threats due to his sexuality. One threat became a reality when they burned down his home; his mother was there when it happened. That’s when Lino decided to immigrate to the United States in order to protect his mother from harm and to protect himself from the anti-black and anti-LGBTQ+ persecution. This was the beginning of his journey. Aged 17, with no money, and no idea how he was going to survive.
Thankfully Lino reached Vera Cruz unharmed. While in Vera Cruz, he met a 34 year old Honduran man who provided food, shelter and money to Lino on the condition that he have sexual relations with him. The constant sexual exploitation and assault weighed heavily on Lino who sought an escape. “I depended on him and he kept threatening that he’d abandon me in Mexico if I didn’t give him my body. So out of obligation, I gave him my body. So, I had to escape him.” After his escape, the Honduran man continued to search for Lino and threatened his life. He claimed that Lino was his property. Lino spent 6 months in Mexico where he struggled to find food and money to cross the border. Once he crossed, he was arrested by ICE and placed in an all women’s detention center.
At this time, Lino began to embrace his identity as a trans man which increased his vulnerability while in detention. Black trans migrants in detention face unprecedented levels of trauma due to anti-Blackness, xenophobia, and transphobia. They also become victims of sexual and physical assault by other detainees and/or prison staff and are often denied access to adequate health resources such as mental health resources. The lack of adequate hygiene expedites their increased risk of illness, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, Black trans migrants are detained longer, held in solitary confinement more often, and suffer humiliating and degrading treatment from prison staff.
Throughout approximately 7 months in detention Lino repeatedly faced anti-Blackness and anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination by other detainees and officers. Lino remembers “one officer in particular, who humiliated me because I didn’t have any money to call anyone outside of the detention center. The officer always seemed bothered when I’d ask for toothpaste or toilet paper. Sometimes, she’d even lie and say that they ran out when they did not”. That and other experiences such as being unjustly held in solitary confinement only augmented the trauma he faced on his journey to safety and security.
Any communion between detainees is a serious crime and the first time officers put Lino in solitary confinement because a fellow detainee, a Black Honduran woman, had sexually assaulted him. Consequently, both individuals were placed in solitary confinement and under investigation. Lino was unjustly placed there for seven days for being the survivor of sexual assault. The second time Lino was placed in solitary confinement was after a white Mexican woman told one of the guards that Lino had kissed her in the early morning. Despite the interaction being fabricated, Lino was placed under investigation and spent 12 days without sunlight and meaningful human interaction. When asked how Lino felt about the ordeal, he stated “I felt bad and recognized the injustice. I was the victim in the situation but they didn’t take my word for anything, they put me in solitary confinement for 12 days without TV, without even seeing the sunlight- all for a lie”. Severely shaken by his experiences, he contemplated deporting himself and returning to Honduras. “When problems started to arise, I didn’t feel comfortable. I almost deported myself but I knew that’d mean I’d continue to suffer in my country”.
Holding onto hope, Lino was able to connect with a pro bono immigration lawyer and eventually with others who were able to support him. He was connected to Casa Ruby, a nonprofit organization that is run by transgender women of color. Casa Ruby serves as a home for marginalized people, predominantly belonging to the LGBTQ+ community, that provide social services and programs for the success and growth of the person. Casa Ruby is also “everyone’s home” which provides a welcoming environment for people beyond the LGBTQ+ community, it extends to their families and the community at large. While at Casa Ruby, Lino met his current partner. Now, Lino lives with his partner and is in the process of seeking asylum.
Despite all of the hardship Lino has faced throughout his life, he remains hopeful about his immigration process. “I feel saved. Hopefully I’ll have my papers soon. I’m happy I’m out of my country.” Lino still communicates with his mother, yet feels the absence of his loved ones. “It’s hard to get up sometimes. I only have my sponsor here. But I know I’ll get up soon”.
The harassment he faced because of his sexuality, gender, and Blackness were the driving forces behind his decision to immigrate to the United States. Certain marginalized individuals such as Lino, a Black trans migrant, face an increased risk of trauma. The trauma immigrants face after fleeing their homes is exacerbated by maltreatment from ICE staff. Black trans migrants are a vulnerable population and ICE is not equipped with the training or resources to ensure their safety and wellbeing while in custody. Although, Black trans migrants constitute a relatively small number of those in detention, the conditions they face provide evidence of the moral vacuity of ICE detention more generally and their struggles, like Lino’s experiences, provide another reason why immigrant detention must end. Here at the Quixote Center, we support Lino, recognize the unbelievable hardship of his story, and honor him for everything that he has overcome. Lino’s story is one of perseverance, resilience, strength and hope.
SJ Fernandez is at the Quixote Center this summer under a fellowship from Georgetown University where she is a graduate student in conflict resolution. Her studies are focused on racial and ethnic identity-based conflict within the United States, as well as immigrant and refugee rights.
Acknowledgments: Lino for bravely sharing his story. Taurence Chisholm Jr. for providing helpful edits that honored Lino’s story. Quixote Center Staff for this amazing opportunity. Lastly, my mother, Annie Gonzalez, who raised me to be respectful and outspoken, not quiet.
This week the Franciscan Network on Migration’s monthly Facebook Live broadcast, En Camino, or “On the way,” featured staff of the Haitian Bridge Alliance and the Quixote Center discussed the situation of Haitians crossing through Central America and Mexico. You can watch below.
The focus on Haitian and other non-Latin American migrants has increased in recent weeks, as border closures and other restrictions have left many Caribbean, African and Asian migrants trapped in refugee camps in Central America and Mexico.
Last week, even PBS News Hour featured reports on the journey through the Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia, and the situation in Panama, where many are now trapped.
On Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, camps are filled with migrants from Haiti, Cuba, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere. Unable to simply turn these people back across the border, Mexico detains some. Others, intending to come to the U.S. have opted to apply for asylum in Mexico instead. Otherwise they can not travel further.
Meanwhile, at the U.S./Mexico border, Haitians trying to journey north are stuck waiting with others, as the border is closed. Over the years Haitians arriving in Tijuana have set up mutual aid efforts to assist each other. For many the future remains very unclear.
For those who attempt to cross and get caught, there is no asylum process now available. They will simply be expelled – many detained incommunicado without any kind of reference number until space can be found on a flight back to Haiti.
Twenty-one* people died in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody during fiscal year 2020 (Oct 1, 2019 to Sept 30, 2020). The number of people to die in ICE custody during the previous fiscal year was eight. At the same time the administration has shut down the border, slowed (though far from halted) internal removal operations, and continued to deport people, the number of people in ICE custody has fallen significantly since March. As of mid-September, ICE was holding 20,006 people in custody. The higher number of deaths, with fewer people incarcerated, translates into a spiraling mortality rate in ICE facilities.
The number of people in detention at the beginning of the fiscal year was approximately 53,000. There have been 177,391 book-ins since then. So, the “net” number of people to cycle through the system this fiscal year is 230,391. Which means, the mortality rate for people in ICE custody is 9.1/100,000 – or about 82% higher than themurder rate in the United States.
The people who have died this year come from all over the world, from Africa, Asia, Europe and throughout the Americas. It is a sobering reminder that the impacts of U.S. immigration policy reach everywhere. Four of the people who died were seeking asylum – two of whom had already passed credible fear interviews and remained detained anyway. One man, from Cameroon, died before he could be interviewed – taken off life support following a brain hemorrhage despite the wishes of family members that he remain on life support until someone could be with him. Another committed suicide a week after his appeal for asylum relief was denied. Overall, one-third (6) of those who died in custody committed suicide.
Of the eleven people to die since May 6, eight have died from COVID-19, though one other case is likely a COVID case – the person was never tested. All of these deaths involve people with known underlying conditions that make COVID-19 deadly, principally diabetes and in two cases the individuals were over 70 years of age. They would all be alive if ICE had followed recommendations to release people. Indeed, all of the people on this list would most likely be alive today if ICE had simply pursued alternatives to incarceration.
The actual number of deaths that have been the result of ICE detention during the pandemic is not known. ICE has deported thousands of people since March all over the world, hundreds of whom are known to have been COVID positive at the time of their deportation, and the majority of those deported have almost certainly been exposed to novel coronavirus while in custody. How many of these people have died following their deportation? How many others did those deported from the United States expose to novel coronavirus upon their return home due to ICE’s recklessness? There is no way to know. One possible indication of ICE’s responsibility: At the beginning of the summer at least200 people in Guatemala who were COVID-19 positive had been traced to deportation flights.
Below I try to tell a part of the story of those who have died in the U.S. since October 1, 2020. Sadly, for most, the only information currently available to me is from ICE reports. In some cases, press reports have provided additional information – though often they are simply repeating information from ICE press releases. For a few of the deaths that happened earlier in the year, there has been time for independent investigation; negligence in these cases has been shown. None of these people deserved to die, and certainly the 20,000 other people remaining in detention do not deserve to be threatened with death for simply not being a U.S. citizen.
*Most reports show 20 deaths this year. I have included Óscar López Acosta below, which others have not. Though he died from COVID-19 related illness several weeks after his release, the details indicate he was most likely infected while in detention. López was included in Congressional counts of COVID deaths in ICE detention.
Nebane Abienwi, from Cameroon, October 1, 2019. Otay Mesa Detention facility (CoreCivic). From our earlier report:
Nebane Abienwi left Cameroon this summer, flying to Ecuador and then traveling up through Columbia, Central America and Mexico. He arrived at the San Ysidro Port of Entry near San Diego and declared his intent to seek asylum. Nebane was 37 years old and a father of six children. According to family members, his goal was to settle in the United States and then bring his family to join him.
On September 26, Abienwi apparently fell off his bunk, and was found in a confused state. He was eventually sent to Chula Vista Medical Center where it was discovered he was bleeding severely in his brain. The family was contacted on September 30th. At this point Abienwi was on a ventilator. Abienwi’s brother informed officials that the family wanted his brother to remain on life support until someone could come to be with him. However, after declaring that Nebane was brain dead, medical staff took him off life support. His brother, who was trying to get travel documents together to come be with Abienwi was not informed by ICE or medical staff. He found out from a reporter who called about the case.
Follow up report from The Nation: ‘According to two medical professionals, the lack of proper medical attention indicates that he was a victim of medical negligence. “It’s just inconceivable to me that he’s…been hospitalized three weeks ago [in Mexico] for severe hypertension and then can come into a facility and be totally normal,” said Dr. John Flack, hypertension specialist and Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine at Southern Illinois University, adding that his symptoms appeared to have been “woefully undertreated.”’
Roylan Hernandez-Diaz, from Cuba, October 15, 2019, Richwood Correctional Facility (Lasalle Corrections):
Crossed the border in May of 2019 seeking asylum. He was handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In August Roylan passed a credible fear interview and yet was still held in detention despite having family in the U.S. and thus not being a threat to flee. In October Roylan was part of a protest inside the Richwood Correctional facility where he was being held. In retaliation, Roylan was placed in solitary confinement. He was found dead in his cell; an apparent suicide by hanging.
Report on follow up investigation: “An Associated Press investigation into Hernandez’s death last October found neglect and apparent violations of government policies by jailers under U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, at a time when detention of migrants has reached record levels and new questions have arisen about the U.S. government’s treatment of people seeking refuge.”
Akinyemi arrived in the United States in 2017 with a non-immigrant visa which was good for a year. He stayed beyond its expiration. In July 2019 he was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor sex crime and assault. He was convicted and given a suspended sentence with three years probation on Dec 19, 2019. Upon his release he was immediately handed over to ICE and taken to the Worcester County Jail in Maryland on December 20th. He hung himself in his cell that night (5:00 a.m. December 21, 2019).
Samuelino Pitchout Mavinga French citizen, originally from Angola, December 29, 2019. Otero County Processing Center (Management Training Corporation):
Mavinga arrived in New York in November 2018 under a visa waiver program. He was detained by border patrol at a checkpoint in Texas on November 11, 2019, for overstaying his visa. Mavinga was transferred into ICE custody the next day, and put into detention at the Otero County Processing Center, in Chaparral, New Mexico, pending deportation. He was, according to the intake proceeding, healthy. A month later, on December 11th, he was transferred to the Torrance County Detention Facility in Estancia, New Mexico. Prior to his transfer, ICE staff noted that he had stopped eating and had lost nearly twenty pounds. They transferred him anyway.
Mavinga was taken to a hospital the day after his arrival at Estancia and found to be suffering from a twisting of the large intestines causing bowel obstruction. He had surgery to remove a portion of his colon on December 16. In recovery he was confused, and uncooperative. The staff, with a doctor’s permission, received an order allowing him to be placed in a 4 point constraint – but it is not clear this was used. By Christmas day, Mavinga was in critical condition, his stomach filled with fluid due to infection. He died a few days later from a heart attack brought on by septic shock.
Ben James Owen from Britain, January 26, 2020. Baker County Detention Center (Baker County Sheriff’s Office)
Ben Owen died at the Baker County Detention Center in Macclenny, Florida, the cause of death “self-inflicted strangulation.
Owen entered the country on July 23, 2019 on a visa good until December 2019. He was here to visit his wife and newborn daughter who lived in Tennessee. According to a profile in the Daily Mail, he was hoping to eventually bring his family back to the U.K. In the interim he was applying for a green-card so he could stay in the U.S. and work as an electrician.
In November Owen was charged with battery for an undisclosed incident in Daytona Beach. ICE noted that Owen overstayed his visa at this point, though the time line makes clear he was charged in November, and could not have then left the country in December as he was awaiting trial. He was re-arrested on January 12 for violating the terms of his release. Owen was then turned over to ICE on January 15 and placed into deportation proceedings. Though facing charges, it is worth noting he had not yet been convicted of anything prior to being placed in ICE custody.
Owen hung himself ten days later after making a phone call to a friend. In addition to the new born daughter, he had another young daughter in the U.K.
Alberto Fundaro-Hernandez, from Cuba, died January 27, 2020 after detention at Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami, FL.
Hernandez had been in the United States since 1980, arriving with other refugees during the “Mariel boatlift.” Over the years he had several arrests on drug and assault charges, and had been homeless for at least 10 of those years. In January of 2000 an immigration judge issued an order of removal for Hernandez, though he was released with an “order of supervision.” ICE arrested him again on January 14, 2020 after he was discharged from jail following a three-day stint for shoplifting. He was then placed in Krome North Service Processing Center pending removal to Cuba.
Upon arrival at Krome, his medical sheet included the following conditions: congestive heart failure, asthma, diabetes, hypertension, Hepatitis C, dyslipidemia, and chronic kidney disease. Over the next week his health deteriorated rapidly. By January 22 he had become incontinent and X-rays showed an enlarged heart. On January 23 he was finally transferred to a hospital. Four days later he had 8 heart attacks in the space of 4 hours. He was briefly placed on life support and, according to ICE’s report, an effort was made to locate a family member. None was found. Following a 9th heart attack he was taken off of life support later that morning. He was 63.
David Hernandez Colula from Mexico, died February 21, 2020 after detention in the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center (CoreCivic).
Colula had been in the United States since at least 2014 – when he was picked up by border patrol in New York. He was released on bond a few days later pending removal proceedings. In December 2019 Hernandez was arrested by the Sturgis Police Department in Michigan who were responding to a “civil dispute” between Hernandez and his wife. The report indicates he was then held on an outstanding warrant for a previous domestic assault. Upon release from jail, Hernandez was immediately transferred to ICE custody and placed in detention pending removal proceedings. He was placed at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown, Ohio on December 10, 2019.
Two days after his arrival at NOCC, Hernandez was found in his cell with a blanket around his neck. He was placed under a suicide watch and took part in group therapy sessions. Just four days later, a staff evaluation determined that, “he presented without risk factors, and recommended discontinuing his constant observation.” He was returned to the general population. In mid-January, Hernandez reported anxiety and sleeplessness. He was given anti-anxiety medications. Between January 8 and February 19 his ICE report indicates only three check-ins with mental health staff. A few hours after the last reported evaluation on February 19, in which staff claim they witnessed no concerning behavior, Hernandez hung himself in his room with a bed sheet.
Maria Celeste Ochoa Yoc de Ramirez was picked up by border patrol on September 4 near Hidalgo, Texas. She was transferred to ICE custody two days later and held at El Valle Detention Facility in Raymondville, TX. Six days later she was transferred to Kay County Detention Center (KCDC) in Oklahoma. Her intake assessment indicated she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Ochoa filed a claim for asylum, and on October 8, was granted a hearing following an interview in which she established a credible fear of persecution if returned to Guatemala. According to ICE’s historic operating guidelines, at this point she should have been released until her hearing date. She had no criminal record and had family in the United States willing to sponsor her. Under the current administration she was detained anyway. ICE’s death report makes no mention of her asylum claim.
Between her arrival at KCDC in September and the end of January her ICE report only indicates medical treatment for minor issues. However, by the first of February she had lost 14 pounds and was clearly very ill. Over the course of the next 6 days, she was evaluated repeatedly, at one point simply given Flonase for a runny nose. Throughout she had an elevated heart rate and trouble breathing. On February 6, following an “abnormal” urine analysis she was finally sent to a hospital. The next day, Ochoa had an emergency gallbladder surgery. She was returned to detention on February 10. Three days later she was transferred to a Prairieland Detention Center in Alvarado, Texas.
On February 18, Ochoa was then taken to a hospital again, later transferred to a medical center in Fort Worth where she remained until her death. Her cause of death, according to ICE’s press release, was “autoimmune hepatitis, complicated by septic shock and acute liver failure.” In other words, she died from an infection related to her surgery – a process that unfolded over nearly 2 weeks as her body slowly broke down. She was only 22.
Orlan Ariel Carcamo-Navarro arrived in the United States with his son on February 19, 2020. They presented themselves at the Presidio Texas Port of Entry and indicated that they would file for asylum. Two days later they were transferred to the Karnes County Residential Center.
Carcamo failed his initial asylum screening by a US Citizenship and Immigration Services officer on Feb. 28. This decision was later upheld by an immigration judge on March 11. Inside Karnes, Carcamo was suffering from depression. A case worker noted on March 5 that he became upset during a group trauma therapy session after discussing his situation back in Honduras and the initial denial of his asylum claim.
On March 16 during his parent “audit-check,” a social worker noted, “[Carcamo] reports… having anxiety, insomnia (difficulty sleeping), nightmares.” He was referred for an individual psychiatric evaluation. The next night, a week after his asylum appeal was denied, Carcamo hung himself in his room.
Lucian Allain of RAICES, who had been working with the family, said: “Today we learned that an immigrant father detained at the Karnes Detention Center took his own life. We are in shock and deeply disturbed by this devastating news. He was our client and we were fighting for his and his family’s freedom…” At the time of writing I could find no information on what happened to his son. Carcamo was married and had one other child. He was 27 years old.
On December 20, 2019 Hernandez was arrested by the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s office for assault. Hernandez’s immigration record indicates he had been back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. many times over the past 20 years, and had been deported prior. Hernandez was convicted of the assault charge, and released with time served on January 14 – though held overnight on a detainer from ICE. On January 15 he was transferred to ICE custody and taken to the Port Isabel Detention Center. His intake form noted a history of diabetes and hypertension.
On February 7 an “advanced practice provider” evaluated Hernandez. ICE’s summary: “an APP evaluated Mr. Hernandez during a chronic care appointment and reviewed his laboratory results, which were normal except for elevated lipids, glucose, hemoglobin A1C, and trace protein and ketones in his urine. Mr. Hernandez complained of left flank pain, reported past kidney issues, and not drinking water.” (emphasis added). Over the next 10 days Hernandez was given a variety of treatment, and eventually diagnosed with a urinary tract infection. Four weeks later he collapsed while using the bathroom. He was rushed to a hospital where it was discovered he was in kidney failure. Unresponsive, he was placed on a ventilator. On March 21 he was removed from life support and pronounced dead. The press release simply noted “septic shock” as the preliminary cause of death. He was 42.
Carlos was born in El Salvador and he fled that country as a child with his mother and sister after his brother was killed during the civil war in 1980. He had lived in the United States for 40 years. Like many people who live in the shadow of trauma, Carlos struggled with addiction and one result was a number of arrests for possession and a DUI. For these offenses, he served sentences like anyone else, and yet, under Clinton-era laws, the convictions made him deportable.
With a removal order in place, Carlos was placed in detention at the Otay Mesa Detention Facility after being stopped at a check-point by Border Patrol in January of this year. Carlos also had diabetes severe enough that an injury to one of his feet several years ago led to its amputation. In a wheelchair, diagnosed with hypertension and diabetes, he should have never been detained at all while awaiting his hearings — and certainly should have been paroled once the threat of COVID-19 was apparent. Instead, he was incarcerated.
On April 21, 2020 he was evaluated by medical staff for chills, cough and a sore throat. He was given a COVID-19 test, but sent back to the general population until the results came back positive three days later, at which point he was reassigned to a unit for COVID-19 patients.
He died on May 6 from “complications due to COVID-19.”
Choung Woong Ahn from South Korea, died May 17, 2020, Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield, California
Ahn had been in the United States since 1988 and was a permanent resident. He had been convicted of attempted murder in 2013 and was taken into custody by ICE after his release from prison earlier this year. ICE had refused to release Ahn on bond after multiple appeals from family and attorneys since the time he was taken into custody in February.
Given his age  and health condition [diabetic], there seems little reason to have kept him detained. His crime made him deportable, but he had already served his sentence. If he were a U.S. citizen, he would simply have been sent home. Had he been permitted bond and allowed to wait for his hearing with family members, he would still be alive.
Ahn’s last appeal for bond was on May 13 and was denied. On May 17 he was found hanging in his cell, an apparent suicide.
June Lee, director of the Korean Community Center of the East Bay wrote: “Mr. Ahn already served his time fully for his former convictions. He spent eight years at Solano State Prison in Vacaville. He earned his release, and was deemed safe to be reunited with family. Instead, ICE transferred him to the immigration detention facility in Bakersfield for deportation proceedings. ICE not only detained him, exposing a medically vulnerable old man to horrible risk of COVID19, but refused to release him 3 times, confiscating his right to see his family for good. A most meaningful way to honor Mr. Ahn’s life is to ensure no more inhumane death in ICE and its facilities [emphasis added].”
Óscar López Acosta from Honduras, died May 17, 2020, shortly after release from Morrow County Jail. COVID-19
Óscar López Acosta had been charged for irregular re-entry, after crossing the border following being deportations in 2009 and again in 2012. Though facing a federal conviction, Óscar fought the charge and was held in pre-trial detention for months. In May of 2019, he was released from federal prison after a judge sentenced him to time served for the re-entry charge. Rather than get released, however, he was transferred back into ICE custody, where he remained for another year.
On April 24 of this year, after it was confirmed that another person detained with him (and dozens of other people) had tested positive for COVID-19, he was released from Morrow County Jail. Oscar himself tested positive on May 3, and died of complications from the disease on May 17. He should have never been detained. Óscar López Acosta also had diabetes, and ICE knew this. During his trial for irregular re-entry in January of 2019, he went into diabetic shock after jailers forgot to give him his insulin injection. There was no purpose to his detention to begin with, and given his risk factors, he should have certainly been released much sooner.
ICE does not recognize Acosta’s death as a “detainee death” and most media outlets except for Mother Jones, have not reported on his death in relation to ICE detention. I am including him in my count because it seems clear he was infected with COVID-19 while in ICE custody and that he would be alive today if not for an unnecessary year spent in detention.
Santiago Baten-Oxlaj from Guatemala, died May 24, 2020 after detention at Stewart Detention Center. COVID-19
Santiago Baten-Oxla had been in the United States since 2005 without papers. He had no record until an arrest for driving under the influence earlier this year. On February 19 he was sentenced to 48 hours in jail and a year of probation. On March 2, ICE arrested Baten while he was checking in at a probation office in Marietta, Georgia. He was taken into custody and placed at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, GA. His intake form documents a history of diabetes. On March 26, an immigration judge granted him voluntary departure. He was supposed to leave the country “on or before” April 27.
Baten was then exposed to COVID-19 in mid-April – when someone in his cohort tested positive. Baten remained with his cohort, despite showing symptoms and his documented history of diabetes, for 5 more days. His health continued to decline. He was finally transferred to Piedmont Columbus Regional Hospital on April 18, where he was formally diagnosed with COVID-19. He remained hospitalized until his death, spending the last few days of his life in intensive care. He was 34 years old, married and had three children.
Onoval Perez-Montufa was arrested on cocaine possession charges in 2007. He was tried and sentenced the following year to 12 years in federal prison. Upon his release from prison on June 15, 2020, Perez was immediately taken into ICE custody and detained pending removal proceedings.
Perez’s intake form indicated that he had a history of diabetes. He was initially held at the Krome Service Processing Center, and then transferred to Glades County Detention Center on June 24. Krome has been the source of multiple infections. Just a few weeks before Perez was held here a federal judge announced that 350 people had been exposed to COVID-19 and were in quarantine after eight staff members had tested positive. By mid-July there were 91 confirmed cases of COVID-19 at Krome, which one attorney described as a “COVID-19 petri dish.” Transfers from Krome have spread COVID-19 throughout the country – including possibly Farmville, which has an infection rate of over 80% now. This was the situation Perez was placed in.
Within a week of his transfer from Krome to Glades, Perez was showing COVID-19 symptoms and tested positive on July 2, 2020. In another week he was intubated, and remained on a ventilator until he was pronounced dead on July 12. Perez was 51 years old, married and had three children.
Louis Sanchez Perez from Guatemala, died July 15 after detention at Catahoula Correctional Center, Monroe, LA
Louis Sanchez Perez originally came to the United States in 1998 and was arrested by Border Patrol. He was sent back to Guatemala shortly after. He entered the U.S. again, and was removed following an arrest for a driving violation. He entered the system again after an arrest for drunk driving in Tennessee earlier this year. On January 29, 2020 ICE took custody of Sanchez and transferred him to Etowah County Jail.
Despite the risks associated with moving detainees from facility to facility in the current context, Perez would be transferred three more times. On February 6 he was transferred to the LaSalle ICE Processing Center. The next day he was transferred to the Winn Correctional Center. While at Winn Sanchez got sick. His in-take forms indicated a history of diabetes and hypertension. Within days he was exhibiting high blood pressure, which was treated and he appeared to stabilize. On February 21 he reported having trouble sleeping and difficulty breathing. On February 26 he was transferred again, this time to the Catahoula Correctional Center. That day he ended up in the hospital showing signs of pneumonia and never came out.
On June 9, Sanchez’s “cardiac monitor showed bradycardia (slow heart rate), and [he] presented with a faint pulse and respiratory difficulty, requiring subsequent transfer to the ICU and ventilatory assistance.” He was in ICU until his death on July 15. Despite these symptoms, there is no indication in his report that he was ever given a COVID-19 test. Rather, hospital staff ruled the preliminary cause of death to be “septic shock leading to cardiopulmonary arrest.” Louis Sanchez Perez was married and had one child. He was 46 years old.
Kuan Hai Lee from Taiwan, died August 6, 2020 after detention at Krome Service Processing Center, Miami, FL.
Kuan Hai Lee was incarcerated after being picked up by Border Patrol on January 23. He was found to have entered the country legally in 2004, but had overstayed his visa. On July 31 staff at the Krome Service Processing Center found Lee on the floor. He was taken to Kendall Hospital, where he remained until his death. The cause of death is listed by ICE as “massive intercranial [sic] hemorrhage.” There is very little information about Lee’s case available at this time. ICE has not yet released a detainee death report.
James Thomas Hill from Canada, died August 6, 2020 after detention at ICA-Farmville, Virginia. COVID-19.
Farmville currently has the highest COVID-19 infection rate among ICE’s facilities. At this point, almost everyone at Farmville is COVID-19 positive. The explosion of cases here happened following transfers from facilities with high exposure rates in Florida and Arizona in June.
On James Hill’s death, which is too recent for official review, I simply quote from the La Colective/Sanctuary DMV press release: We mourn the loss of James Hill, a 72-year-old man who died of COVID-19 after contracting the disease while detained at the Farmville detention center, operated by the private prison company Immigration Centers of America (ICA). Despite being high-risk of death from COVID-19 due to his age, James Hill had been detained at ICA-Farmville between April and July of this year, as the global pandemic spread like wildfire in ICE facilities across the country. He was supposed to return home to Canada on July 9th, but fell ill and was hospitalized days before his flight. On Wednesday night, he lost his fight against COVID and became the 17th person to die in ICE custody this fiscal year.
James Hill’s death was entirely preventable. He, along with nearly 90% of the detained population at Farmville, contracted COVID after ICE transferred 74 people from Florida and Arizona into ICA-Farmville in June. 51 of those 74 people later tested positive for COVID-19, and, shortly after the transfer, the entire facility became overwhelmed with COVID. Mr. Hill also suffered aggravated COVID symptoms after ICA-Farmville guards used pepper spray against people protesting the facility’s abysmal response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Jose Guillen-Vega from Costa Rica, died August 10, 2020 after detention at Stewart Detention Center (CoreCivic). COVID-19
There is very little available about Guillen-Vega’s case other than what is in the ICE press release confirming his passing from complications related to COVID-19: “Guillen-Vega entered the United States in El Paso, Texas, in 1999 with authorization to remain until 2000. He stayed beyond that date and was later convicted of statutory rape and taking indecent liberties with a child in in Lincolnton, N.C., before being sentenced to 20 years in prison. ICE took custody of him on July 10 following his release from a North Carolina prison and transported him to Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., five days later.”
His death from COVID-19 after detention at Stewart underscores ongoing concerns about Stewart Detention Center. Stewart has been the source of a years-long campaign to shutter the facility over its lack of adequate health services – in “normal” times – and patterns of abusive behavior. Guillen-Vega is the second person to die from COVID-19 at Stewart since May.
According to ICE, Sabonger-Garcia had been in custody since July 7, after being transferred from the U.S. Marshal Services. He was first detained in July of 2019 after entering near Brownsville, TX. Though not specified, he seems to have been charged with irregular entry and held for a year in federal custody before being transferred to ICE. He became ill soon after his transfer and died from complications related to COVID-19 on August 28.
Chavez-Alvarez was a 61 year-old immigrant from Mexico. In 1993 he was sentenced to life in a federal prison following conviction for possession of cocaine with intent to sell. The heavy sentence was the result of this being his third federal drug conviction. In July of this year a federal judge ordered Chavez Alvarez released from federal prison. At that point he had served 27 years for the possession charge, and was sick. He had lymphoma, diabetes, kidney disease, and hypertension. The judge, Neil Wake, ordered him released from prison because he had a “chronic illness from which he is not expected to recover and the defendant’s ability to provide self-care against serious injury or death as a result of COVID-19 is substantially diminished, within the environment of a correctional facility, by the chronic condition itself.” Chavez-Alvarez was released from federal prison and immediately taken into ICE custody.
Stewart Detention Center is certainly characterized as the “environment of a correctional facility,” and so by the judge’s very description of the risk to Chavez-Alvarez, keeping him in detention was putting his life at risk. Within six weeks of being transferred to Stewart he became the 21st person to die this year in ICE custody, the 8th person to die with COVID, and the third person to die of COVID at Stewart.
Seventy-five years ago today bombardiers on an U.S. B-29 called the Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The pilot, Paul Tibbets, call-sign Dimples 82, could only muster a “My God!” as the bomb detonated 1,600 feet above the ground, instantly killing 100,000 people, and condemning a generation of survivors to days, months or years of illness. Following the bombing of Hiroshima, President Truman said, “If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” Three days later the U.S. dropped a second bomb, Fat Man, on the city of Nagasaki.
Over a three day period, the United States government authorized the murder of 200,000 civilians with the dubious claim that doing so saved lives. And despite the horrors unfolding, the intent was to keep dropping the bombs – another raid was planned for August 18. Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945.
In Japan, the survivors of the atomic bombings are called hibakusha. For decades there was a real stigma in being hibakusha. People feared that radiation sickness might be contagious, or that the effects could be passed down through generations. Allied, mostly U.S. forces, which occupied Japan until 1952, helped generate the silence surrounding the bombings and their survivors.
The Allied forces, led by the US Occupying force, General McArthur, had censored all information, including the scientific and literary publications about the bombings – for instance film reels were confiscated, along with scientific specimens and doctors’ records. These were then shipped off to the US. The hibakusha, who were examined medically, for the famous Life Span study (the longest study of radiation effects in existence) were, in general, not interviewed for their experiences, except for a very few psychological studies.
Instead, the hibakusha were the unwelcome reminder of an unknown, unclassifiable event, something so unimaginable society tried to ignore it.
In 1957, a law was passed so that those hibakusha who had illnesses that could be traced back to the bombing were able to receive medical stipends to pay for their care. (For some years, the government failed to recognize as hibakusha non-Japanese survivors, especially thousands of Koreans who had been brought to Japan as laborers during the war and then died in — or survived — the bombings.) Even so, it has only been in the last decade or so that the stigma of being hibakusha has lifted. Of the 650,000 people who survived these bombings, 120,000 were still alive in 2016.
A nijū hibakusha refers to someone who survived both bombings. While as many as 165 people have been identified as nijū hibakusha, the only person to be officially recognized as such by the government of Japan is Tsutomu Yamaguchi. From Nagasaki, Yamaguchi was in Hiroshima on a business trip for Mitsibushi on the morning of August 6:
At around 8:15 am…Yamaguchi heard a plane circling above the city, and then saw something drop from it. Two small parachutes were visible in the distance, carrying a big object that was slowly making its way towards the ground in the center of the city. Yamaguchi was about 3 km away when suddenly a blinding flash of light went off. The explosion aggressively pushed Yamaguchi back and severely burnt the left side of his upper body. Confused and in pain, with ruptured eardrums and temporarily blind, he managed to crawl into an irrigation ditch before making his way into a shelter for the night.
Yamaguchi returned to Nagasaki on August 8. With just bandages as treatment for his wounds, he was back at work at his office in Nagasaki the next morning. While explaining what he saw in Hiroshima to his boss, who was doubtful a single bomb could do such damage, the second bomb struck. Yamaguchi survived the second bombing – as did his wife and young son.
In 2010, the year Yamaguchi died of stomach cancer, a book of his poetry was published in English for the first time. The book, titled, “And the River Flowed as a Raft of Corpses,” contains 65 poems translated by Chad Diehl. The poems are “tankas,” a poetry form, which like haiku, has a specific rhythmic structure (which constrains translation). On surviving:
Carbonized bodies face-down in the nuclear wasteland all the Buddhas died, and never heard what killed them. Thinking of myself as a phoenix, cling on until now. But how painful they have been, those twenty-four years past. If there exists a GOD who protects nuclear-free eternal peace the blue earth won’t perish.
World War II was not a “great” war. It was a global travesty involving the slaughter of tens of millions of people in the name of “great powers” competing for global position. That such a war ended in tragedy is somehow fitting. The atomic bombings provided the segue between the old global order of European imperialism and the new, U.S. imperialism launched under the reign of terror that is the threat of nuclear annihilation. We still live under the shadow of the bomb. And so, we must remember the source, and all the brutality associated with those bright lights in the morning skies above Japan in August of 1945, and vow “never again.”
Emmanuel “Toto” Constant, the notorious leader of the paramilitary Revolutionary Front for the Advancement and Progress in Haiti (FRAPH), which is estimated to have killed 3,000 people, and engaged in thousands of beatings, rapes and acts of torture from 1993 to 1994, was deported from the United States on June 23, 2020. Constant was one of 37 men convicted in absentia in 2000 for their responsibility for the Raboteau Massacre. At the time of the trial, Constant was allowed to live in the United States under an agreement with the Clinton administration. The massacre, which took place in April of 1994, was just one of the many crimes Constant committed, but the only one he has been tried for. Now back in Haiti, he is entitled to a new trial. The question is whether he will get one, or if his friends in the current government will find a way to dismiss the charges and let him go.
Over the last two weeks there have been some encouraging signs and also points of concern. On July 10, the presiding judge in the Gonaives court that has jurisdiction of Constant’s case indicated that he may have to release Constant because the court did not have a copy of the charging document from the 2000 trial. As this was perhaps the most famous human rights trial in Haiti’s history – indeed one of the most important in the western hemisphere – the charges were also published in the official state gazette, and exist on several websites. So, the judge’s comments were largely seen as disingenuous, and, perhaps more importantly, an indication that the court was looking for any reason to let Constant out.
In response, many mobilized to express their opposition to Constant’s release and to demand prosecution. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, former Chilean president, Michele Bachelet, said, “Impunity destroys the social fabric of societies and perpetuates mistrust among communities or towards the State. Accountability helps prevent feelings of frustration, bitterness and the possible desire for revenge which could lead to further violence and atrocities….It is essential for victims to obtain justice, truth and reparations, and for their dignity to be restored.”
This week the Association of Victims of the Raboteau Massacre also organized a press conference and demonstration in Gonaive, calling for Constant’s prosecution, as well as the prosecution of others convicted in the 2000 trial, including Jean Robert Gabriel, the current assistant chief of staff in Haitian President Jovenel Moïse’s reconstituted army. Video below from the demonstration (in Haitian Creole).
The Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti issued a briefing paper on the Raboteau massacre trail, which includes, “a historical overview of the de facto military regime that perpetrated, among other atrocities, the Raboteau Massacre; the resulting proceedings and Trial; and the subsequent dismantling of the tangible justice that the Trial had delivered to the people of Haiti. The briefing concludes by identifying actions that the government of Haiti should undertake to reverse that trajectory and return and rebuild Haiti’s demonstrated capacity to deliver accountability to its citizens.” You can read the full briefing paper here.
For more background on the Raboteau massacre trial, you can also watch the documentary Pote Mak Sonje (in English and with English subtitles)
On July 22, a federal court in Canada declared that sending refugees back to the United States violates those refugees’ fundamental rights: “The Court found that sending refugee claimants back to the U.S. violates their Charter right to liberty and security of the person because many of them are arbitrarily detained in the US in immigration detention centres or county jails, often in atrocious conditions and in clear contravention of international standards.”
At stake in this ruling was a “safe third country” agreement between the United States and Canada, through which people entering Canada from the United States seeking asylum could be sent back to the United States as a “safe-third country.” The court declared that the United States was not, in fact, safe; and thus sending refugees back to the United States violated their rights. Canada’s government has 6-months to withdraw from the agreement with the United States.
It is not really news that the United States has become a country unsafe for immigrants, particularly those who end up in immigration detention centers. But it is definitely newsworthy that a Canadian court has spoken out. Will it matter in the long run?
The problems with these facilities have been well documented for years. They include the abuse of solitary confinement, often employed as punishment, including for periods extending past the three-day limit, beyond which the tactic has been declared a form of torture. People in detention have insufficient access to medical services, including mental health services. Such services are almost uniformly supplied through private contractors who have been repeatedly shown to be more concerned with the bottom line than providing adequate care. Facilities are unsanitary, often overcrowded, and thus, at high risk for the rapid transmission of communicable diseases. Beyond these conditions, which are consistent with those found throughout the United States’ carceral network of jails and prisons, is the simple fact that detention is an unnecessary, and typically arbitrary response to people who have, in most cases, violated no law. Seeking asylum, for example, is legal no matter how one arrives within the country.
The United States’ response to COVID-19 has only magnified these long-observed, structural deficiencies. Within Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s network of detention facilities, there has been little change in operations since the pandemic was declared. People are routinely transferred between facilities – a primary means of spreading the disease. Within facilities, overcrowding and inadequate sanitation remain a serious problem, and poor quality healthcare is an obvious hurdle to treatment. That ICE has simply continued with the same standards of “care” is not surprising, however, the result is a pandemic within ICE detention facilities.
According to official numbers, as of July 28 (they change daily), 3,868 people have tested positive for COVID-19 since February. Of these, 963 people are still in custody. The number of people currently in detention facilities is 22,067. That is an infection rate of 4.4%. However, a majority of people currently in custody have not been tested. More than 68,000 have been “booked-in” to an ICE facility since February – and at the beginning of February there were nearly 40,000 people already in custody. So, of the 100,000 people that have cycled in and out of these facilities since February, only 19,092 have been tested. Which is to say, an overall 4.4% infection rate among current detainees is incredibly high, and yet, certainly a serious undercount.
Of course, the distribution of COVID-19 is not even. There are facilities that are at crisis levels of infection. The worst is Farmville in Virginia, where 80% of the people being held have tested positive for COVID-19. Four people currently being held have sued ICE and the detention facility itself, noting
“[H]arrowing conditions inside the detention center, with large numbers of people exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 yet not being provided the most basic medical care. The plaintiffs have also been served expired, uncooked, or undercooked food and food infested with bugs. They claim that ICE and ICA-Farmville’s actions not only violate the Consttution but also violate ICE’s own standards for providing medical treatment and food services to detained people.”
To be clear, this is no act of nature beyond the control of authorities. “ICE transferred 74 people, 51 of whom had COVID-19, from facilities with known COVID-19 cases in Arizona and Florida into ICA-Farmville in June.” ICE’s carelessness is putting the lives of the people in Farmville at risk.
ICE’s lax standards have also impacted staff. At the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, 128 people, or 41% of the total staff at the facility, tested positive three weeks ago. ICE doesn’t even report staff’s infections anymore on their website (there is a number  but it has not changed in weeks) and when they report, it is only ICE in-house staff – not private contractors working for ICE such as the people at Eloy.
Families and children held in ICE custody are also in crisis. COVID-19 is present in the two main ICE family detention facilities, Dilley and Karnes, both in Texas. A federal judge ordered ICE to release all of the children in its custody. However, the judge had no authority over the parents. ICE is refusing to release the parents and the parents have refused to be separated from the children. As a result, the judge was forced to declare the previous ruling unenforceable on Monday. The Trump administration is also engaged in summary expulsions at the U.S./Mexico border – over 69,000 people have been expelled since mid-March! This includes children and families, some of whom have been hidden away in hotels until they can be deported, and thus denied access to any due process.
Let’s face it, as the ruling in Canada underscores, the United States is a rogue state. While many other countries are engaged in various abuses against migrants, the United States really does stand out as exceptional, with the largest detention infrastructure in the world and a series of policies that have decimated the asylum process and destroyed tens of thousands of lives in the process. What to do about this? Join with us and other members of the Detention Watch Network in creating a resounding call to free everyone in detention – for public health and humanitarian reasons. On the legislative side, join us in calling on members of Congress to vote for the Immigration Enforcement Moratorium Act. Together we can continue to organize a voice of moral opposition to violent detention practices and save lives in the process.