On Monday, June 15 bulldozers razed the community of Shada II in Cap-Haitien, along Haiti’s northern coast. Close to 1,500 families lost their homes as a result. Apparently none were notified in advance of the destruction, nor were any compensated for the loss. This inexplicable act was officially carried out in retaliation for a gang assault that left a police officer and five other people dead days before – but this is either not at all true, or, at best, a very partial explanation. The largest gang in Shada is assumed to be politically aligned, and thus this may well have been in part retaliation. However, that hardly suffices as an explanation for putting 1,500 families out of their homes in the midst of a pandemic.
The organization SOIL has been working in Shada II since 2004 issued a statement about the demolition (full statement here):
At this critical moment in global history, when the world is grappling with the combined public health emergencies of COVID-19 and systemic racism, we feel it is critical that we call attention to human rights issues that impact the communities we serve. There are many unanswered questions about what happened in Shada II last week, and we urge human rights groups to investigate. At the same time, SOIL stands in solidarity with the thousands of innocent people who lost their homes and belongings, and we recommit our organization to sustained social change. True change demands that all stakeholders come to the table to shine a light on the injustices suffered by vulnerable communities caught in the crosshairs of larger political, economic, and social forces, particularly at a moment when the world is facing an unprecedented crisis that calls for compassionate ingenuity and proactive support to those most at risk.
We will continue to report on this as more details unfold and the community regroups to decide what comes next.
Toto Constant is Back in Haiti
Emmanuel “Toto” Constant was deported from the United States to Haiti on Tuesday, June 23. Constant is the former leader of the FRAPH, a notorious paramilitary organization responsible for the deaths of thousands of people while the country was under military rule following the coup against Aristide in 1991. Constant fled to the United States when Aristide was reinstated in 1995 where he remained until this week. Meanwhile, in Haiti, Constant was convicted in 2000 in absentia for his involvement in the massacre at Raboteau. Despite the conviction, Constant was allowed to remain in the United States. Early efforts to remove him stalled, and most assume he was being protected as a former CIA asset. However, he was later convicted of real estate fraud in New York and imprisoned. For many the hope was he would remain in prison.
After serving 12 years of a 37 year sentence, Constant was released from prison and immediately taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Reports that Constant was to be deported emerged in early May. Over the course of several weeks ICE would put Constant on a flight manifest, to later remove him. Constant was finally deported this Tuesday. What does this mean?
Constant was arrested upon his arrival under the 2000 conviction which still stands. However, Constant is entitled to a new trial. Brian Concannon and Mario Joseph (both of whom were involved in landmark human rights trials in the late 1990s that led to the 2000 conviction of Constant and others) published an op-ed in the Miami Herald that explains what is at stake.
A credible prosecution of Constant must respect both his rights and those of the Raboteau Massacre’s victims, who have official status in the case under Haiti’s “civil party” system. The victims are entitled to a robust prosecution that presents all the available evidence, as well as the right to notice of hearings, to participate in some of them and to appeal rulings that infringe on their rights. The original Raboteau trial is a good benchmark: It included expert testimony from international forensic and military experts, documents from the military archives and extensive victim and witness testimony.
The passage of time since Constant’s crimes in Haiti does not prevent his prosecution. His death squad’s murder and torture of civilians were both widespread and systematic, placing them squarely within the definition of crimes against humanity, so the statute of limitations cannot apply. Constant was convicted under a command responsibility theory, and the evidence was mostly documents, which are as credible as ever.
For now, the hope is that Constant remains in custody. He has many former political allies in positions of power under the current government -and should he be released, could wreak havoc. The U.S. has a role here. In 2000 the Clinton administration stalled releasing documents related to FRAPH activity that had been taken by US forces from FRAPH headquarters in 1995 during the operation to reinstate Aristide. Once documents were released they were heavily redacted. The U.S. must support requests for evidence this time around.
Deportation flights continue…for now
As indicated by Toto Constant’s arrival in Haiti, deportation flights are continuing. We encourage everyone to continue to reach out to members of Congress and press for an end to these flights.
If you have not done so yet, you can send a message to your member of the House and ask them to support legislation to end deportations to Haiti. The Haiti Deportation Relief Act was introduced by Frederica Wilson and has the support of committee and subcommittee chairs on the Foreign Relations committee – which means it could get a hearing, committee vote and make it to the floor of the House if people show enough support. It clearly will have a hard time moving in the Senate – but we must press when and where we can!
In addition, the Quixote Center’s Executive Director, John Marchese, was one of 360+ human rights activists and other notables to sign a letter that was sent to the Department of Homeland Security and State Department, including the U.S. Ambassador to Haiti, last week. The letter was organized by the Haitian Bridge Alliance. You can read that here. You can also then print this letter, and send it with a message to your members of Congress to end deportation flights! Find their address here.
One of the most obvious ways in which ICE continues to thumb its bureaucratic nose at decency and common sense is their policy of continuing deportations amidst a global pandemic. Based on information from public flight tracking websites, the Center for Economic and Policy Research has identified 330 likely deportation flights to Latin America and the Caribbean since February 3, 2020. There were three flights yesterday – two to Mexico, one to the Dominican Republic.
We know that these flights have sent people who tested positive for COVID-19 to Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, El Salvador, Jamaica, India and Haiti. Likely, people with the virus have been deported to most other places these planes fly. At this point it would be nearly impossible to assemble a flight where no one had been exposed, as coronavirus is now present throughout the ICE detention network. The testing regime is insufficient. ICE does not test everyone before they board a deportation flight, and those who are tested are given a 15-minute, “rapid test” that has been demonstrated to have a high false negative rate.
The chorus of people who have asked these flights to be halted is significant: Editorial boards, members of Congress and nearly every non-governmental organization working on immigration policy or in a country impacted by these flights. For more background on these flights and the problems associated with them you can read our reporting on this blog, Jack Johnson’s research article on the CEPR blog, or Daniella Burgi-Palomino’s opinion piece on Truthout here.
The latest effort demanding a halt to these flights is a letter to State Department officials, including the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, organized by the Haitian Bridge Alliance. This letter is demanding that deportation flights to Haiti in particular be halted throughout the duration of the current health crisis. The letter was released today. From the Haitian Bridge Alliance press release:
Today Ibram X Kendi, Danny Glover, Edwidge Danticat, Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., Opal Tometi, Guerline Jozef, Dr. Barbara Ransby PhD, Randall Robinson, Jackson Browne, and Rainn Wilson, along with 359 other prominent human rights, humanitarian and racial justice leaders signed a letter urging the United States to immediately halt deportations to Haiti during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A letter to the U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Michele Sison, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf states: “Deportations export COVID-19 throughout the region and put countless lives at risk….The capacity of Haiti’s health system to respond to COVID-19 cases is already at its limit,” and a spike of infections could “destroy an already weak economy and exacerbate political instability.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has sent six deportation flights to Haiti since March 18, despite the serious risk of infection to deportees and transmission upon arrival. At least eight deportees who had tested positive for COVID-19 by ICE were deported to Haiti on May 26. One of them complained of symptoms the night before he was deported. Given the severe limitations on the availability of COVID testing and the unreliability of test results, “there is simply no safe way to deport persons.”
ICE told the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 2, 2020, that it does not test all detainees before deporting them. The letter notes that of the 30 Haitians deported on May 26, 14 were not tested before deportation, and the other 16 were tested with the “15 minute test” which the Food and Drug Administration considers unreliable because it gives “false negatives.” The lack of reliable testing violates explicit promises given by the United States to Haiti that it would test all deportees within 72 hours of their departure.
What can you do….
Frederica Wilson has introduced legislation in the House of Representatives to halt all deportations to Haiti until the health crisis in both countries is over. You can click on the button below send a message asking your member of Congress to co-sponsor this legislation.
At the moment, there is a debate about numbers. Official statistics concerning COVID-19 in Nicaragua are 1,823 confirmed cases, with 64 deaths. Based on official statistics, this is the lowest number of confirmed cases in Central America, and the second lowest tally of deaths (Costa Rica has only reported 12 deaths).
It is not, however, that much of an outlier. El Salvador has 4,200 confirmed cases and 82 deaths with roughly the same number of people, but a population density nearly 6 times that of Nicaragua. As reported in the official data, Nicaragua’s ratio of those dying to confirmed cases is the second highest in the region, after Guatemala. This might simply reflect that people are less likely to get tested and into the health system until they are quite ill. However, the differences between Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala on this count are small. Across the region, access to testing is a huge issue, and in every country across the globe (including the United States), it seems safe to assume that infections are being grossly undercounted. The government’s reporting has been less frequent than that of its neighbors; in comparing the growth curves, for example, one can see that reporting is weekly, not daily. That said, the curve is nearly identical to other countries in the region: relatively flat until May and then taking off. Point is, while the numbers are almost certainly undercounts, as they are everywhere, they hardly stand out as indicators of massive fraud.
That is, until you read the reports of Observatorio Ciudadano COVID-19, an NGO launched in April to offer “independent” estimates of cases, and/or to delegitimize the public health ministry. According to the Observatorio, as of June 10, there are 4,971 suspected cases of COVID-19 and a whopping 1,398 suspected deaths, markedly higher than the official figures. It is, of course, possible, even likely, that the number of cases of people with COVID-19 is that high, or even higher.
Almost every observer of the virus in Latin America would say the undercounts across the region are huge, given the lack of access to testing and the high rate of people who are asymptomatic. For better or worse, we can only compare confirmed cases. If we adopted suspected cases as the framework, the numbers would sky rocket everywhere and would be even more subject to manipulation. The death toll, however, seems way out of proportion, and is put forward with tales of secret burials and massive government cover ups. Even if these breathless tales of conspiracy were true, it seems highly unlikely that Nicaragua has had more than three times the number of COVID deaths as Guatemala, for example, a country with a much larger population living in more crowded quarters.
To be sure, there are several structural features to Nicaragua’s political economy that are in the country’s favor, at least in terms of the initial spread of COVID-19: Lowest population density in Central America, relatively low urbanization rates (over half the population is rural), a history of expansive vaccination campaigns and a parallel infrastructure of community clinics and health care workers, as well as a free healthcare system which has doubled the ratio of doctors to the population over the last 12 years. Alongside that, the country has faced a collapse in tourism and even business travel over the last two years, due to the political crisis, meaning that in the important first weeks of the pandemic, there were fewer international visitors to Nicaragua than elsewhere in the region. These factors, as Magda Lanuza wrote several weeks ago, help to explain the early lower numbers in Nicaragua better than shadowy conspiracies. But while these factors might help explain the slower introduction of COVID-19 to Nicaragua, they do not offer much protection once the virus is introduced and community spread takes root, as is now the case. The healthcare system is impressive, given the constraints the country has faced, but is still under-resourced, and thus ill prepared for a massive number of cases.
So the government should lock everything down, right? Maybe not.
The government’s response is consistent with the fact that, as Quitzé Valenzuela-Stookey writes, Nicaragua is not well equipped for “non-pharmaceutical interventions,” or NPIs. Principally we are talking about social distancing. Nicaragua’s government has received much criticism for not locking-down the economy while keeping schools open. Yet, as Valenzuela-Stookey writes,
The structure of the Nicaraguan economy makes NPIs particularly costly in the short term. Working and learning remotely is impossible for most people in Nicaragua, which has only 2.98 fixed broadband subscriptions per 100 people, compared to 13.44 in Latin America overall. The governmental capacity for fiscal intervention is lower. Its ability to distribute aid directly to businesses and people is limited. This is especially true of workers in the informal sector, which accounts for an estimated 73 percent of non-agricultural employment in Nicaragua. For the 45.5 percent of households classified as food insecure, economic hardship is a critical health issue. The Ortega administration may be justifiably wary of following the example of countries such as Peru, where the growth of infections has been among the highest in the region, despite a strict lockdown implemented early in the early stages of the pandemic.
Ultimately the government in Nicaragua is triangulating several factors – the economic and political costs of locking down the economy, the ability of the country’s health sector to manage cases, and timing. Timing is the critical, ultimately unknowable part. Locking down the economy does not stop the spread of the disease. Social distancing only slows the spread of the disease so that health systems are not overwhelmed. In countries with well-developed health care systems, this might mean that when all is said and done, the death toll will be lower as people buy time for the evolution of new treatments. There is no guarantee that locking down Nicaragua’s economy will have the same effect. Nicaragua’s health care system could be overwhelmed either way, and given the near impossibility of locking down the economy without causing massive unemployment and widespread hunger, this becomes a huge risk.
In that context, the government may well be de-emphasizing the health risks of the novel coronavirus for political reasons. Remember, the country was literally locked down for three months two years ago by opposition forces seeking Ortega’s departure. Those three months broke a record five years of growth and poverty reduction built on governmental policies. Nicaragua has yet to bounce back from that shut down. In light of ongoing U.S. sanctions against Nicaragua, the government would be taking an enormous risk to lock down the country again. This may be a “grim calculus” as Valenzuela-Stookey suggests, but it is also true that the formulation of the problem is taking place within a broader context of crisis brought on by international pressure. Concern for the people of Nicaragua might suggest easing that pressure during this pandemic. But that does not play into the opposition, or U.S. policy goals, very well. Better to discredit.
In Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, where the governments have enforced lock downs and stringent curfews, the list of accompanying human rights abuses is long. Honduras’ government is using mass arrests for curfew violations as cover for rounding up political opponents. El Salvador’s president is using the crisis as a pretext to strengthen his hold on the country’s governing institutions. He has also promoted incarcerating violators of the lock-down in overcrowded detention facilities, where spread of the disease is assured. Nicaragua, on the other hand, released more than 2,800 people from prison as a preventive measure. While it has been reported that some officials and a baseball manager were dismissed from their jobs in reprisal for speaking out about the coronavirus and for demanding personal protective equipment, this sort of response hardly seems comparable to the counterproductive response of incarcerating people in violation of curfew in El Salvador. In any event, Nicaragua remains sanctioned, while the U.S. State Department just certified progress on human rights in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras sufficient to keep funding their militaries and police forces. Seriously.
Maybe one day, U.S. policy makers will end their cynical and often hypocritical practices around human rights and foreign policy. Until then, just remember, that while the government of Nicaragua is probably getting some stuff wrong in the management of this crisis (if you know of a government that got it right, please let me know!), Trump’s State Department is funding most of the “pro-democratic” sources on Nicaragua you read in the Times and the Post, when they bother to write about Nicaragua at all. These are folks whose primary interests lie not in public health, but rather in discrediting the government. Just something to keep in mind.
Since early March we, and many others, have been calling for the release of people from prisons, jails and immigrant detention centers as a necessary step to stop the spread of COVID-19, and protect the lives of those incarcerated. During late March and April there were releases, largely of people in pre-trial detention in county jails and/ people at the end of their sentences, if they had been incarcerated for a non-violent offense. At the same time very few state prisons joined in releases, and the Federal system also largely failed to release people.
The numbers now are truly horrific. As of June 9, the Marshall Project reports that 43,967 people who are incarcerated in state and federal prisons in this country have tested positive for COVID-19 – and only a handful of states have even begun wide-spread testing in prisons. That is an overall rate of close to 29 per 1,000. States that have instigated wide spread testing regimes, such as Texas, have double this rate or more. New Jersey has the highest rate at 135 cases per 1,000.
522 people have died of COVID-19 in prison since the beginning of the outbreak.
In addition, there have been 9,180 cases of prison staff with COVID-19 and 38 deaths.
In immigrant detention centers, the total number of people being held has fallen off dramatically – from 38,000 in mid-March to just over 24,000 today. However, the driving force behind this fall in detentions is not releases but deportations. While advocates have been successful in getting humanitarian releases for individual clients, it has been quite a battle, as ICE has fought every effort in the courts. ICE has also continued its process of transferring people within its detention network, which has accelerated the spread of the disease. Meanwhile, deportations have continued, and include documented deportations of people with COVID-19 to Mexico, Jamaica, India, El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, and Haiti, with concerns about deportations to Brazil and Ecuador as well.
ICE has been reporting confirmed cases of COVID-19 among people incarcerated in their detention network since April, but recently changed the format of these reports. They also reported an inexplicable increase in the number of people tested over two days by 1,800, with no parallel increase in cases. That said, according to official data, of the 5,096 people tested, 2,016 have tested positive (as of June 5). Almost 1,000 are still in custody. ICE only reports 2 deaths in custody, but we’ve reported on three, and frankly, people released and/or deported are not tracked. Which is to say, I don’t believe their reporting on this at all.
Conditions inside immigrant detention centers and prisons remain horrible. Among the more outlandish cases of gross inhumanity, is the GEO Group’s spraying of chemical disinfectants intended for outdoor use inside Adelanto Detention Facility. On May 21, Freedom for Immigrants reported jointly with the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice that dozens of people have been made sick by the use of this disinfectant – but the company has not (as of this writing, to my knowledge) changed its practice. ICE, for its part, has simply backed the company, saying any suggestion they are using the chemical inappropriately is a lie.
Meet Jackson, the newest member of the hen house staff in Campeche. Jackson calls Fon Ibo home, & has been interested in agronomy since he was in grade school. He regularly works in the Lekòl Jezi-Mari school garden, & is happy whenever he sees young people engaged in garden activities. Jackson values income-generating agricultural activities, especially in an agrarian community like Gros Morne. Jackson regularly attends agronomy training & seminars in the local area, & someday he hopes to further his formal education in a university agronomy program.
Jackson applied to work at the hen house because he knows how important good quality eggs are for the local economy. In Gros Morne, many people make money by preparing egg sandwiches. If they buy a carton of eggs, they have to know that they are making a good investment in fresh eggs, because if too many eggs spoil before they can use them they will also lose their slim profit margin. In the immediate area around the hen house, there are many economically disadvantaged families. For some, eggs will be a major component of their weekly nutrition intake. Jackson strives to receive each client, whether the neighborhood kid from down the street or the big restauranter from town, with dignity.
On a typical day, Jackson leaves his home in Fon Ibo at 5am, before sunrise. Most days he bikes the 4 miles to the hen house so that he arrives in plenty of time to prepare for the morning feeding & egg collection. After updating the egg collection spreadsheets, Jackson receives some clients & then prepares to feed the hens & collect eggs again at noon. He repeats this process in the afternoon, before finishing with the final egg collection report around 6pm. Then he bikes toward home, usually stopping at Kay Gilbert, a local shop, for a cold drink & some pate, a fried dough street food filled with sauteed veggies, before heading home. On Fridays, Jackson works with the rest of the hen house staff to make feed for the hens. This hard work, & Jackson usually stops to swim in the river on Friday afternoons when they finish making the feed.
Jackson has enjoyed his first month of work at the hen house, & is quickly learning the nuances of controlling feed & water variables to enable the hens to lay at their optimal level.
The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless other Black people by police officers and racist vigilantes attest the need for systemic change and solidarity in the fight for justice and equity for Black communities. The Quixote Center stands in solidarity and friendship with Black communities and the Black Lives Matter movement.
As a multi-issue social justice organization, the Quixote Center aims to bring about lasting systemic change. Confronting racial injustice in the United States and elsewhere requires action that undercuts the material bases of oppression. We call for and support campaigns that seek to defund police departments, eliminate Immigration and Customs Enforcement, end the detention of migrants and seek the abolition of prisons. Funds used to police and incarcerate should instead be directed toward building sustainable communities.
We support in an unqualified way the right of those who are engaged in protest actions in response to injustice, particularly racism, at this time. The harm to human life, disproportionately to the Black community, brought about by state violence and persistent institutional racism, must end.
For those who are unable or do not feel it would be prudent to participate in mass mobilizations at this time for health reasons – particularly in light of the global pandemic – there are other ways to support the cause of racial justice.
For those who would like to learn more about anti-racism work, you can start here.
For those who want to get engaged in movement activities, the Movement for Black Lives has a list of ideas for actions, coded for degrees of risk, connected to themes that have animated the ongoing week of action.
For those who want to support protesters in the streets from their homes, here are some ideas.
For those who want to donate to black-led organizations working directly on questions of racial justice, here are just a few to get started:
Black Lives Matter– Founded in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, BLM is an international organization whose mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities.
Minnesota Freedom Fund– Community-based nonprofit that pays criminal bail & immigration bonds for individuals who have been arrested while protesting police brutality.
Movement for Black Lives – created as a space for Black organizations across the country to debate and discuss the current political conditions, develop shared assessments of what political interventions were necessary in order to achieve key policy, cultural and political wins, convene organizational leadership in order to debate and co-create a shared movement wide strategy.
Black Visions Collective– A black, trans & queer-led organization that is committed to dismantling systems of oppression & violence, & shifting the public narrative to create transformative long-term change.
Campaign Zero– online platform & organization that utilizes research-based policy solutions to end police brutality in America.
Geri Lanham works with our partners based at the Jean Marie Vincent Formation Center in Grepin, Haiti (just outside of Gros Morne). She offers an update below on the current situation in the area. Gros Morne has had one confirmed case as of June 11, 2020. The person, who was also diabetic, has died*. The community is nevertheless feeling the impact of the pandemic on everything from school schedules to food prices. Included are photos from our emergency seed distribution, ongoing as the rains have begun. Thanks to everyone who has supported these efforts – Tom Ricker
In Gros Morne we do not yet have a confirmed case of covid-19, but people are feeling the impact of the global pandemic. Community organizations created handwashing stations out of buckets and spigots, and placed them along the main streets in town. Local bank branches were some of the earliest adopters of covid prevention measures like washing hands and wearing facemasks, and they are now employing social distancing so that people can continue to utilize their vital services in this cash based society. Since many family members who went abroad now find themselves out of work, remittances are down for families back home in Haiti. Since the president officially closed the borders in a country where imports make up a large portion of the goods in the market, it has been more complicated to supply basic goods via the new guidelines of who and what can enter the territory.
Many Haitians who entered the Dominican Republic for work in the past few months have made the decision to return to Haiti since the health crisis lockdown has been more severe across the border. Thousands of them have returned via irregular border crossings, which means that very few of them have gone into quarantine. Since there are over 10,000 confirmed cases in the Dominican Republic, this unregulated population of returnees poses a risk to the fragile healthcare system, especially since some of them are returning to the countryside to places like Gros Morne where healthcare resources are ill-equipped to manage an outbreak of covid-19. Thanks to community education campaigns, people here have tentatively begun to wear locally-made reusable cloth face masks, although practicing social distancing is practically impossible in the stressed parameters of the large local market and on public transport.
As the exchange rate continues to rise north of 100 Haitian gourde to 1 US dollar, everyone is feeling the pressure of decreased purchasing power in the local markets. School teachers who have been out of work since 20 March are struggling to provide basic food for their families. Prices for basic goods like a bag of rice increase weekly, at a time when fewer and fewer families have the economic capacity to buy in bulk for a discounted price. Basic monthly provisions of rice, beans and oil now cost the equivalent of $50 USD. For teachers who were making about $100 USD per month, they now have to spend 50% of their income on basic food. and that does not include any spices or vegetables.
Many families, especially in the countryside, rely at least partially upon income from their gardens to support their families. As a result of global climate change, the seasonal rains were slow to come this year. That means that the spring planting season was pushed back a few weeks in Gros Morne, which in turn increases the weeks of hunger that families will have to endure between planting and harvest. And this year the rains started and then promptly became irregular to the point that farmers who planted at the first rain lost some of their crop if they were not able to provide an alternate water source for irrigation of their fields.
Schools have been closed for over 2 months. After the president announced that the schools and churches would remain closed until at least 20 July, the Ministry of Education presented a plan that would see schools opening at the beginning of August or the beginning of September, depending upon how the situation develops or deteriorates in the next few months. Due to a lack of access to regular electricity, it has been a challenge to support distance learning initiatives. Some schools have been able to take advantage of whatsapp, google classroom, and other technology to enable them to continue to provide classroom content for their students, but they are very much in the minority.
In Gros Morne, we are launching a series of courses on the radio intended for secondary school students. The Ministry of Education maintains that once the students have returned to school, they will take official state exams after about 50 days of classroom instruction. Somehow during that time they are supposed to absorb, process, and comprehend the content that they were supposed to cover over the course of the more than 100 days of instruction they have missed this academic year between the locked country political debacle and now the coronavirus crisis. The math does not seem to add up, but the schools have to do something to salvage this academic year. Due to lack of electricity, it will be impossible to reach 100% of the students, but for those who are able to tune in this will at least provide a starting point as we start to look toward the future that will at some point involve classroom learning again.
There is a sense of being in a holding pattern that involves suffering no matter what. People are trying to be responsible and take precautions to protect themselves and their families from contracting covid-19. But as they attempt to do this, they do not have much support, if any, from the state or other sources to enable them to provide the basics for their families. Students are suffering as they must sit and home and wait for the education structure to welcome them back to class, and parents are suffering as they must venture out to provide for their families while they know the risk and the lack of medical services if they do get sick. What little they are able to do still equals the current reality of families who are suffering from hunger and lack of resources in the midst of a pandemic.
This passage was updated since the article was originally published to reflect the one confirmed death in the area.
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.
Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. ~George Orwell
In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens, I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States. ~Donald Trump, April 20, 2020
I read the news today, oh boy. ~John Lennon
In 1946, George Orwell wrote the essay “Politics and the English Language.” Of particular concern in this essay was what Orwell portrayed as a general decline in the English language, evident in the use of unimaginative metaphors, pretentious diction, extraneous verbs and other operators, and, finally, what he simply calls the use of “meaningless” words. Orwell argues that the general decline in language is both a cause and effect of environmental factors. In his words, language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
Orwell’s particular target was political language, which is constantly deployed to “defend the indefensible.” He writes, “political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.”
The manner in which language is used to conceal more than to reveal in the hands of politicians, political commentators and even politically engaged “everyday people” was hardly a new concern, even in 1946. Whether the English language has suffered a general decline is not precisely an empirical question, of course, but if we agree that political language was in a sorry state of affairs in 1946, abused as it was to deflect attention away from the brutality of war and conquest, it is not a huge leap to suggest the language of politics has continued to devolve. Political language has become inherently untruthful. Indeed, we hardly expect honesty at all from our political class any more (beyond what can be defended from our own “standpoint”). The result is brutality, which if commented on at all, is veiled in lies.
The Invisible Enemy
The segue from this general observation to the Trump administration is not a difficult one. Trump is known to lie pretty much continuously. When he tries to tell a version of the truth, he is often wrong, or minimally, confused about the details. And yet, his administration has been the fulcrum employed to engineer a massive redistribution of wealth – to the wealthy – while gutting every regulatory regime that existed prior to January of 2017. Alongside these activities, his administration has employed a hyper-nationalistic narrative to turn an already brutal immigration system into one of abject cruelty. This brutality has evolved over the years behind consistent use of terms like “criminal alien” and “illegals” (one hardly needs to ask who “illegal” refers to anymore). Justified by this rhetorical twist that turns migration into a crime, the United States has built the largest immigration jail network in the world. Most of the people trapped in this system have committed no crimes, of course, but the language of criminality works here as it works in domestic “criminal” justice to dehumanize.
This network of immigrant jails and the mechanics of removal enfolds otherwise disparate institutions and interests, from thousands of private companies to dozens of county and local police agencies, alongside the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country, into a constituency with a material commitment to maintaining the detention and deportation machine. If there is any doubt about this publicly-funded commitment to profit from the pain of migrants, one need merely look at how the last two months have played out. From the standpoint of reason and public health, detention centers would have been cleared and deportations halted. Border controls, unavoidable in such times, would have been crafted in a way that maximized the provision of health services to migrants (and all of us!) — as it is no one’s human interest to leave people uncared for in the face of a pandemic that is indifferent to the borders we draw around our otherwise imagined communities.
But Trump is not operating from the standpoint of reason nor concern for public health. Unable to even say COVID-19, Trump’s team has sacrificed thousands in order to capitalize on brutality in the fight against the “invisible enemy.” Since early March, the Trump administration has fought against humanitarian releases from detention facilities, has continued to deport thousands of people from those detention facilities to countries around the world, and has engineered a public health crisis at the U.S./Mexico border out of sheer indifference to the human suffering these policies mean for tens of thousands of people.
“Committed to Health and Welfare”
On Sunday, May 17, 2020, Choung Woong Ahn took his own life at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield, California. Ahn was 74 years old and a diabetic. 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. Ahn was a permanent resident. He had been convicted of attempted murder in 2013 and was taken into custody by ICE after he had completed his sentence earlier this year. Given his age and health conditions, 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.
In the press release announcing the death of Choung Woong Ahn, ICE included this statement: “ICE is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody.” If this was remotely true, the people in ICE’s custody would mostly be released. Certainly, they would have been released in the face of a global pandemic. ICE, when pressed, will claim that immigrant detention is civil detention and not intended to be punitive. This is true – legally speaking. And yet behind the prison walls where ICE detains people, those people are brutalized, emotionally scarred, physically scarred and in too many cases, whatever the ultimate outcome of their cases, suffer what will become lifelong trauma as a result. Many take their own lives. Ahn was not the first to do so this year. And sadly, he won’t be the last. We can expect such human losses until the detention machine is shut down.
Overall, Ahn was the eleventh person to die in ICE custody since the fiscal year began on October 1, 2019, and the third person this month. This is the highest annual total of deaths in ICE custody in a long time, and we are only half-way through the year. As a sign that things are about to get far worse, the other two deaths in May were due to COVID-19. As of May 19, ICE reported that 1,145 people in custody have tested positive for COVID-19. Since ICE has only tested 2,194 of the 26,660 people currently being held, the actual number is surely much higher.
The first person to die in ICE custody as a result of COVID-19 was Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejía. 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 released with humanitarian parole once the threat of COVID-19 was apparent. Instead, he was incarcerated. He contracted COVID-19 in detention and died on May 6 after being transferred to a medical facility for treatment.
After forcing Carlos into detention, delaying testing and treatment for COVID-19 until he was very ill, (and in the process exposing many of the people detained with him to the disease as well), ICE also wrote in the release about his death, “ICE is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody.” ICE’s expressed concern for the people in its custody has to be set alongside the tomes of affidavits, reports and inspector general findings that testify to the contrary. Against this wealth of evidence of abuse, denial and/or serious delay in the provision of health services, ICE’s boilerplate expressions of commitment ring hollow. More importantly, what this means is that ICE was unprepared for COVID-19, and, per its track record in dealing with other outbreaks of communicable diseases, ICE has altered its operations only minimally in response to the crisis. For example, in a May 14 letter to ICE director Matthew Albence, congressional leaders wanted to know why…
At the Otay Mesa facility, Marciela Ortiz was assigned with 15 other women to begin working in the kitchen, the same workspace where another detainee had tested positive for the virus. Within days, Ms. Ortiz and other women on the kitchen detail began experiencing coronavirus symptoms. When Ms. Ortiz sought help, she was told to walk around and take a shower. Ms. Ortiz and others with symptoms were left in the general population rather than being isolated. Ms. Ortiz was not able to get tested for coronavirus until after she was released on bond. She tested positive.
Members of the House Oversight and Civil Rights committees have written three letters to Albence demanding answers about scenarios like this since April. They are still waiting. Meanwhile, people keep getting sick.
Óscar López Acosta was born in Honduras. He had been charged for irregular re-entry, having crossed the border after being deported in 2009 and again in 2012. Rather than simply plead out, however, 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. Now he is dead.
Earlier this month, a federal judge ruled in Fraihat v ICE, that ICE must undertake a mandatory review of everyone in its custody that is at high risk if exposed to COVID-19 and release more people. In making this ruling, the judge noted that ICE had utterly failed to adopt practices consistent with Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. He wrote that ICE’s “systemwide inaction” has “likely exhibited callous indifference to the safety and wellbeing” of ICE detainees. It is worth noting that two guards, Carl Lenard and Stanton Johnson, are also among those who have died after contracting Covid-19 in ICE detention facilities. Both worked for Lasalle Corrections at the Richwood facility in Monroe, Louisiana. They, and others working in the facility, had been directed not to wear face masks.
Throughout this system of detention facilities ICE claims 44 people who work for them are confirmed positive for COVID-19. However, ICE does not report on the people employed by contractors. Carl Lenard and Stanton Johnson were never included in this count. So, again, ICE is engaged in spreading serious misinformation about conditions in detention facilities. Of the cases ICE will claim, the facility with the worst outbreak among staff is in Alexandria, Louisiana. This facility is one of several staging facilities used by ICE Air Operations for deportation flights. 15 people have been confirmed positive at this facility.
Over 100 people who have been deported through the same facility over the last month have tested positive once they returned home to Guatemala, Haiti, and Colombia. They may or may not have contracted the disease in Alexandria. They could have gotten it anywhere in ICE’s network of detention facilities. Why? Because ICE continues to transfer people within its network, carelessly spreading the disease by taking people from facilities with high infection rates and transferring them to facilities where there were none. For example, an outbreak at Prairieland, Texas was traced back to a transfer of people from hard hit detention facilities in the Northeast. When ICE was told by a federal judge to reduce crowding in facilities in South Florida – they simply transferred people. The result was an increase in cases at the Broward Transitional Facility from 3 confirmed to 19 over the weekend. All 16 of the new cases were among people transferred from the Krome detention center in Miami.
Under such conditions, ICE’s decision to continue with deportations demonstrates the “callous indifference” with which it views not only the people in custody but the communities from which they originate. The number of people held in ICE detention facilities has fallen from just over 38,000 in March to 26,660 as of May 16. Most of this decline is the result of continuing deportations while book-ins to ICE facilities have fallen off. In March, 20,000 people were booked into ICE detention facilities as a result of border arrests and internal removal operations. That fell to 8,500 in April, and 3,900 through the first half of May. Humanitarian releases have been relatively few and far between, as ICE has fought every effort in court to gain release of people. At the same time, ICE has continued to deport thousands of people.
Using flight information retrieved from FlightAware’s database, Jake Johnston with the Center for Economic and Policy Research has documented 273 likely deportation flights to countries in Latin America and the Caribbean since February 3, 2020. While the pace of flights has slowed somewhat over this time period compared to recent years, it is still an astounding number. Almost all of the destination airports for ICE charters are otherwise closed to international commercial flights, as countries seek to restrict travel and contain the spread of COVID-19. The efforts of governments in Guatemala and Haiti, in particular, to stop deportation flights after people have arrived testing positive, have only resulted in vague promises from ICE that they will be more careful, and pressure from the Trump administration, which threatened to sanction any country that refuses to accept deportation flights. And so ICE’s “callous indifference” to the people in its custody is now the world’s problem as well.
In addition to these deportation flights, 21,000 migrants have been pushed out of the United States into Mexico since mid-March as the Trump administration has used its war against the “invisible enemy” to shut the border. In reality, Trump’s administration has been trying to shut the border to asylum seekers and other immigrants since he took office. Currently, under the guise of a CDC order on restricting border crossings, people seeking asylum at the southern border are denied any hearing. They are simply deported back to Mexico. Many of those from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador are then picked up by Mexico’s immigration authorities, and bused to Mexico’s southern border. There they may be detained, deported, or released with temporary papers. The CDC order that Trump is using to justify this policy was extended indefinitely on May 19.
Others so removed join the tens of thousands of refugees already crowded into towns along the Mexico-U.S. border who have been waiting, in some cases over a year, for a chance to have their asylum cases heard by a U.S. immigration judge. The hearings they are waiting for have been suspended. The people jammed into border camps, overcrowded shelters, or scratching out a living in the streets of Tijuana, Matamoros and Ciudad Juarez are the unfortunate “beneficiaries” of the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols.
The impact of this policy has already been devastating. 57,000 people forcibly returned to Mexico over the last year to wait, with only a handful receiving asylum through immigration hearings that are a farce. With the border closure and summary expulsion of asylum seekers and others, the situation becomes more overcrowded, unhealthy and uncertain. This week, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune released a report on the impact of these border policies on children. The opening story is of two sisters, ages 8 and 11, who crossed the border at Brownsville after their father disappeared in Matamoros. The family had been waiting for a year for their hearing under the MPP. Instead of reuniting the girls with their mother, who is living in the US, they were held for two months by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, at which point ICE declared their intent to deport them back to El Salvador. As the result of a last-minute appeal, they were reunited with their mother, and are allowed to stay…for now. Other kids have not been so lucky. 1,000 unaccompanied minors have been summarily expelled at the border under the CDC order since mid-March.
“All I want is the truth”
The Trump administration’s approach to COVID-19 has clearly been to deflect attention and thus responsibility for its own very botched efforts to take the looming crisis seriously back in January and February, when concerted actions might have made a huge difference. In deflecting blame, Trump has rolled out a whole barrage of nonsense, from endorsing conspiracy theories, to popping hydroxychloroquine, to blaming China and Obama. Accompanying the nonsense has been a quieter war on people whose only “crime” is being non-citizens of the United States. On the frontlines of this war, people are also dying.
While the United States will struggle, perhaps for years, to reverse the damage done by the last two months of crisis, there are fairly simple and reasonable things that can be done today: Allow people to leave detention facilities in this country, reinstate asylum at the border, accompanied by health screening and care, and stop deportations. Aside from boosting capacity to screen and care for people at the border, none of these things really cost money. Indeed, a moratorium on detentions and deportations would save millions. More importantly, these steps would save lives and reduce the chances of infections for everyone.
There are efforts afoot to address all of this. We are facing an uphill battle to be sure, but you can weigh in and get involved. Here are a few of the efforts that are already under way:
Detention Watch Network, of which the Quixote Center is a member, issued the following call for a National Day of Action today related to the #FreeThenAll campaign. Take a look and do what you can!! Peace, Tom
Dear DWN community,
Today, Detention Watch Network (DWN) and communities across the country are joining in a national day of action to call on our elected officials to demand ICE release all people from immigration detention now.
Your governor, mayor, members of Congress, city council members and more need to hear from you.With your influence, they can be moved to call for people to be released from detention and pressure ICE to act. We need the people who represent us to stand up for the health and freedom of people in immigration detention and demand to #FreeThemAll now.
Today’s action will be the first in series of national days of action to #FreeThemAll as we continue to raise our voices and escalate the call to get all people out of detention now.
How to Take Action:
Pressure your elected official. Using this sample template, send an email to your elected official calling on them to demand your ICE Field Office Director release people from detention. Make sure to attach this sample letter to your email for your elected official to send to your ICE Field Office Director. Not sure who your ICE Field Office Director is? Find them here.