ICE and the myth of the criminal alien, Take Action

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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

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Rogue State: The U.S. and immigrant detention in the time of COVID

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 [45] 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. 

Franciscan Father Jacek Orzechowski prays over 300,000 petition signatures during a rally July 27,2020, outside the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters in Washington. The petition demands the agency release children currently in detention, but the building’s security detail would not accept the signatures. (CNS/courtesy Franciscan Action Network)

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. 

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The United States’ uncomfortable relationship to torture

Today, June 26, is the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. This year marks the 34th anniversary of the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment coming into effect. 162 countries have ratified the Convention, including the United States. Nevertheless, the United States continues to engage in and justify torture.

The Convention defines torture:

“[T]he term ‘torture’ means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.” — Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984, art. 1, para.1) Emphasis added

Nils Melzer, who is the Special Rapporteur for this Convention, issued a report in 2018 which argued that states’ practices employed to deter migration constituted torture. As we noted then, Melzer’s description of the problem, though not directed at any one state, read like a synopsis of U.S. immigration policy:

In response to increasing numbers of…”irregular” migrants arriving at their borders, many States have initiated an escalating cycle of repression and deterrence designed to discourage new arrivals, and involving measures such as the criminalisation and detention of irregular migrants, the separation of family members, inadequate reception conditions and medical care, and the denial or excessive prolongation of status determination or habeas corpus proceedings, including expedited returns in the absence of such proceedings. Many States have even started to physically prevent irregular migrant arrivals, whether through border closures, fences, walls and other physical obstacles, through the externalisation of their borders and procedures, or through extra-territorial “pushback” and “pullback” operations, often in cooperation with other States or even non-State actors. (Melzer 2018, 4)

At the time we wrote about Melzer’s report, we emphasized detention as a method of torture. Detention is arbitrary in the sense that the vast majority of people are held under mandatory detention statutes that provide little space for individual assessment. Because detention is indefinite, people are under added stress, not knowing when they will get out. Conditions in immigrant detention facilities are horrible. Facilities still rely heavily on solitary confinement to manage behavior or punish non-compliance. They routinely neglect the health concerns of those detained, especially mental health concerns, with one result being that nearly half of the people who die in detention commit suicide. Facilities have been dragged into court for the use of forced labor. Above and beyond these factors, for many there is the added torture of separation from family members, including children.

In October of last year, Freedom for Immigrants issued a much more detailed report on detention:

This report focuses on the difficult-to-quantify qualities of immigration detention itself —the uncertainty, the fear, the isolation—and how they affect not only those detained, but also their families and community networks. We identify how systemic isolation plays out in the lived experiences of people impacted by this system and the ways in which people cope with it. The goal of this report is to strengthen community-based resources for resilience and resistance in the face of a purposefully cruel system.

Detention is a form of torture.  As a matter of policy and practice, the U.S. government intentionally makes people suffer while in formal custody in order to serve other objectives. This is torture. The maltreatment of people in detention cannot be dismissed as “incidental to lawful sanctions.” While one might argue that feelings of anxiety and depression are natural side effects of incarceration, one cannot seriously argue that prolonged use of solitary confinement, placing people in freezing rooms, denial of mental health services and other health services, poor food quality, and effective denial of contact with family, friends and even counsel, are incidental to lawful sanctions. Indeed, these practices contravene legal obligations for how people are to be treated.

Inside our borders, we torture every day. At the moment, in the context of a global pandemic, this torture takes on increased severity. People are literally fearing for their lives, as they watch others being held with them get sick. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has changed very little in terms of its practices, continuing to shift people around, deport them, and force them into hearings. In some cases, conditions have reached absurd levels of cruelty. At the Geo Group-managed ICE facility in Adelanto, California, for example, the company has been spraying harsh chemicals intended for outdoor use as the principal means of disinfecting the facility. They have continued this practice even after multiple reports have emerged that the chemical is making people sick – including coughing and sneezing blood. ICE has stood by the company.

All of this has been made worse over the last year and half as the Trump administration has shut down the border to asylum seekers. The administration has forced asylum seekers to wait for their asylum hearings in camps on the Mexico side of the border. The administration has denied people who transit a third country the ability to even seek asylum, unless they are denied in that country first. And, now the administration is sending people who do seek asylum back to Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras, to first seek asylum in one of the countries – even as the bulk of asylum seekers are fleeing conditions in one of those three countries.

Again, the administration’s response to COVID-19 has only made this situation worse. The United States is now summarily expelling everyone who crosses the border – over 40,000 people since mid-March, including children traveling alone – under an abusive CDC order intended to justify border controls. No one is being allowed a chance to even apply for asylum.

For too long, the United States has sought to legitimate a deterrence strategy that is, let’s be clear, a form of torture. We must call it what it is. As we commemorate the victims of torture, we would do well to consider all those who are incarcerated. We join in the call to #FreeThemAll and to #SaveAsylum. 

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#FreeThemAll Campaign Update #3

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.

The Marshall Project breaks down the data by each state. You can review their reports here.

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.

Check out the FreeThemAll campaign and follow for further updates and actions.

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#FreeThemAll National Day of Action

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
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WTF Trump? Stop the flights already!!

The Trump administration has lost its mind. Really.  During this pandemic, borders have been closed, airports shuttered and international travel generally restricted across the globe, all in an effort to contain COVID-19. The Trump administration has gone as far, or further, than most. It has shut U.S. borders to “non-essential” travel, which along the southern border means anyone seeking asylum is removed immediately to Mexico. 20,000 people have been expelled under this order. The administration has suspended most other forms of authorized migration as well, including the issuance of green cards, and restricting who can get work permits.

Meanwhile, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has continued to deport people throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. To be very clear, they are doing this, well aware of the concurrent risk of spreading COVID-19. The United States is now the global center of coronavirus infections with over 30% of confirmed cases across the globe and well over 25% of global deaths. Within jails, prisons, and immigration detention facilities, the rate of infection is much higher than among the general population. Inside ICE’s detention facilities specifically, the virus has now spread throughout the system – a primary reason being that ICE continues to transfer people within this network, guaranteeing its spread. The first confirmed death in custody due to COVID-19 has happened. There will be more. A Federal judge has mandated that ICE let more people out of detention – and in doing so, he noted ICE’s “callous indifference to the safety and wellbeing of the Subclass members [detained immigrants at risk]. The evidence suggests systemwide inaction that goes beyond a mere ‘difference of medical opinion or negligence.’”

The danger of spreading the disease is made that much worse by the fact that before being deported, people are transferred to staging facilities, where they are held for days and then put on airplanes. There is no way to safely deport people under these conditions. Indeed, as deportation flights have continued anyway, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has now been shown to have contributed to the spread of coronavirus to Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico and Colombia – and possibly elsewhere. Especially concerning are deportation flights to the city of Guayquil in Ecuador, which now has among the worst infection rates by population in the Americas. 

For these and other reasons, hundreds of human rights organizations (here, here, and here), members of the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the editorial boards of Washington Post, Miami Herald, and Boston Globe have called for an end to these flights. The governments of countries receiving people being deported have tried to get the flights called off during this pandemic, but these governments have been threatened with sanctions by Trump if they do anything to halt or “unreasonably” slow the process down.

Amidst all of the controversy, the number of flights has actually increased. ICE has only promised to begin testing – but only of some people. When such testing will start for the general population of those being deported – or even if it will – is anybody’s guess. Testing within ICE’s detention network has thus far been minimal, despite the spread of the disease. Testing a handful of people of only those showing symptoms before a flight is wholly inadequate.

At this point, one might be thinking: “It can’t get worse, right?” But then this is the Trump team and things can ALWAYS get worse. Based on reports from attorneys representing clients scheduled to be deported to Haiti on Monday, May 11 and confirmed separately by the Miami Herald, ICE intends to include at least five people that ICE personnel know are COVID-19 positive on this deportation flight to Haiti – along with 95 other people.

This is insane. 

Not only does this make a mockery of the idea that ICE is taking any kind of preventative measures seriously; it means that Haiti will be forced to quarantine everyone on that flight. Haiti has thus far seen relatively few confirmed cases. While this may very well be the result of few tests being given, it is clear that Haiti has been holding its own, thus far walking a very thin line of prevention, given the state of its public health infrastructure. If the pandemic were to take hold here, it would be devastating. ICE seems okay with helping make that tragedy happen. 

The United States must stop all of these deportation flights for the duration of the pandemic. And ICE must release people from detention to prevent further deaths. People should be let out and allowed to quarantine with family members. For those without family in the United States, community organizations around the country have already been preparing for the possibility of mass releases, to ensure that people are taken care of. We are running out of time.

I know Trump does not care about these people; they are mere talking points to him, and for the sake of political posturing, he will let them die. That leaves Congress to force his hand by cutting funding, or the courts to suspend the flights and be bolder in mandating the release of everybody in custody. There are limits to effectiveness with both of these targets. But we must speak out. 

Send a message to your member of Congress asking them to speak out against these flights!

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Update: #FreeThemAll Campaign

Protesters drive in a caravan around Immigration and Customs Enforcement El Paso Processing Center to demand the release of detainees due to safety concerns amidst the COVID-19 outbreak on April 16, 2020, in El Paso, Texas. Photo Credit: Photo by Paul Ratje / Agence France-Presse / AFP

The Quixote Center is a member of Detention Watch Network and has been taking part in the #FreeThemAll campaign. Below I share the latest monthly update from the Campaign. In addition to this detailed and resource rich update, I would encourage everyone to read this powerful Colorlines Op-ed written by Priyanka Bhatt and Azadeh Shahshahani of Project South about conditions in Georgia’s prison, jails and detention facilities. 

“We are scared. Here, we cannot keep the distance of two meters that is called for. All of us are placed together, we are 76 people in every section… there does not exist a way to be able to avoid an outbreak. Please, we ask for help from everyone…We are human beings, we also need to be with our families to be able to help them.”These are the words of an immigrant detained at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia.

Though focused on Georgia, these conditions are replicated throughout the U.S. system of mass incarceration, as we have updated in recent weeks here, here and here

Update From Detention Watch Network

This is the first of a series of monthly email updates about the state of immigration detention. Now nearing two months since the administration declared a national state of emergency, it’s becoming even clearer that detention facilities cannot manage the spread of the virus.

On April 17th, ICE Acting Director Matthew Albence briefed the House Committee on Oversight regarding the agency’s response to the risks of COVID-19 in immigration detention. After weeks of pressure from public health experts, advocates, and elected officials alike for releasing people in ICE custody to best observe health and safety precautions, ICE admitted to having only released 693 individuals for virus-related concerns of the almost 30,000 people still in detention at the time.

Just days later, DWN members Southern Poverty Law Center and Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center succeeded in getting a preliminary injunction deeming this response seriously deficient and ordering ICE to re-evaluate custody determinations. And just days after that, another federal judge in Southern California ruled in favor of large-scale depopulation of the Adelanto ICE Processing Center until the facility can adequately follow social distancing recommendations. Instead, ICE is countersuing while the private prison company that runs this same facility is engaged in a separate legal battle to expand its capacity. To recall, the legality of the expansion request was in question after ICE truncated federal procurement processes to approve the expansion before state legislation that would have barred it went into effect in January. Both the agency and the private prison company, GEO Group, refuse to cancel the expansion despite the public health crisis and federal ruling, clearly demonstrating that they are unwilling to make necessary changes to keep immigrants safe in this moment.

State of Detention by the Numbers

As of April 25th, there are still 29,675 people in ICE detention. These numbers have been slowly decreasing – insufficiently so, and even then, we know that it is not as a result of ICE granting immigrants much needed relief. The administration’s menu of asylum restrictions has effectively closed our Southern border so that CBP is booking about 75% less people in to ICE custody. Meanwhile at a time when the agency is being advised to engage in mass releases, the average length of stay for people in ICE custody has increased 40% this month to 72.3 days. This means that since the start of this pandemic, ICE has actually been holding people for increasingly longer periods of time.

To be clear, when accounting for how the few releases ICE admitted to making contribute to the decreases in the detention population, it’s clear that the agency is not prioritizing the clearly outlined recommendation of release. The numbers do not mean immigrants are seeing relief but come in large part from denying people their right to seek asylum and continued deportations by the thousands – the true priorities of these agencies.      

State of Organizing on the Inside

Since March, there have been at least 20 confirmed hunger strikes with nearly 2,000 people participating in detention facilities across the country, protesting their incarceration and demanding to be released. For reference, we recorded 13 hunger strikes in all of 2019. This is a nationwide trend of immigrants caged in ICE jails refusing meals, knowingly weakening their immune systems during the pandemic, because they understand that regardless of ICE’s response, release is their only option for true safety.

Folks are also protesting by refusing to work in the kitchen, laundry room, or commissary, as ICE is increasingly relying on the labor of people in its custody to operate its facilities. Immigrants in Georgia’s Irwin County Detention Center held up signs asking for help through video communications, while member group La Resistencia captured protesters at Washington’s Northwest Detention Center spelling out distress signals with their bodies. People in detention are putting their bodies on the line to fight for their lives and their demands are clear: only immediate release will keep them safe from exposure to the virus.

ICYMI: Resources from the Network

  • New media analysis and recommendations created in partnership with Immigrant Defense Project and in consultation with other DWN members to build an understanding of how the media has been impacted by this moment and how to adapt to still get our stories out there.
  • Two-part webinar series led by Latinx Therapists Action Network on building and sharing tools for healing (May 11th and May 24th). Register here.
  • Fact sheets, custody re-determination request templates, and other resources for folks seeking relief for individuals particularly vulnerable to coronavirus exposure under the preliminary injunction.
  • New advocate report based on interviews with 150 people detained at five privately run ICE detention centers opened under the Trump administration. It looks at how the immigrant detention system has grown since 2017, the poor conditions and inadequate medical care, and the due process hurdles faced by immigrants held in remote locations.
  • DWN’s #FreeThemAll toolkit with regularly updated calls to action from DWN members. Please reach out to our team to have any new calls to action included as well.
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#FreeThemAll…keep the pressure on!

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“As the virus spreads like wildfire inside the jail in these uncertain times, one constant remains: our society has ceased seeing the people we lock away in our jails and prisons as human beings.” Alec Karakatsanis, of Civil Rights Corps, representing people held in pre-trial detention in Harris County, TX

If one had any doubts about the fundamentally unjust nature of our systems of incarceration, the COVID-19 experience should erase them. For in its responses to this crisis the carceral state(s) has made clear that incarceration has nothing to do with security, or concern for public welfare more generally. From country jails, to federal and state prisons, to the vast network of immigration detention facilities scattered across the country, people are sick, some are dying, trapped in overcrowded facilities, without access to basic sanitation or adequate health services. The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 for those incarcerated is rising exponentially – at dramatically higher rates than in the general population.

In the Federal prison system, cases are far from a plateau. As reported in the Washington Post, “On March 20, the bureau’s website reported just two covid-19-positive inmates and staff; two weeks later, it reported 174 confirmed cases. That’s an increase of 8,600 percent, a much steeper rate of increase than has been recorded among the general population. And because testing has been grossly insufficient, these numbers are almost certainly an undercount.” The chart above gives a sense of the growth since. As of 04/16/2020, there are 473 people in federal bureau of prison custody and 279 BOP staff who have confirmed positive test results for COVID-19 nationwide. Eighteen people in custody have died; seven have occurred in just one prison – Oakdale Federal prison in Louisiana.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons is considering releasing up to 1,000 people to home confinement. That leaves 143,000 people still behind bars.

In county and local jails around the country, efforts to release people in pre-trial detention and others at higher risk have been the most noteworthy, and yet clearly insufficient. In terms of sheer numbers, Los Angeles and New York released 2,500 people combined, and other localities have been looking at ways to get people out. Nevertheless, Rikers Island remains in serious crisis. With 334 confirmed cases among the 4,000 people still being held, as of April 15, the infection rate on Rikers Island is 5 times that of New York City – 13 times the rate of infection in Lombardy, Italy. And everyone knows undercounting is severe within prisons.

In Chicago, Cook County Jail, one of the country’s largest jails, has over 500 people with confirmed cases, and at least three deaths. Nearly 20% of the people being held in the jail have been released since mid-March. Further releases are being discussed, but slowed by negotiations over securing bail. There are 4,400 people still in the jail in pre-trial detention. In other words, they have not been convicted of crime; they are, legally speaking, still innocent. People being held in the jail sued the sheriff’s office over poor conditions. Much of the suit was tossed by a judge, though the judge did order that the county make available adequate amounts of soap and hand sanitizer.

Yes, in the middle of a global pandemic, in the richest country in the world, people behind bars, who have not been convicted of a crime, have to sue the government to get soap. 

In Harris County, TX a federal judge yesterday denied an injunction that would have allowed for the release of nearly 1,000 people held in pretrial detention. At issue was a multitude of competing orders – including one from the governor denying anyone’s release if they had a prior conviction for, or were accused of violence. Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, who ruled on the case, refused to untangle the “jurisdictional mess created by competing stakeholders” in what she called “a dizzying array of government actors with different interests, policies, and legal positions.”

Within state prison systems the situation is worse. In Pennsylvania, Rudolph Sutton, was the first person to die with COVID-19 inside the prison system. He had been working with the state innocence project trying to secure his release.  He likely should have never been in prison to begin with. He was 67 and should have been released regardless (having already served a 30 years sentence). Now he is dead. He won’t be the last. 

In Oregon, twelve people in prison have tested positive for COVID-19, leading the state to consider releasing close to 3,000 people of the 14,000 in custody. It would certainly be one of the bolder moves – at least in terms of numbers. However, predictably, despite the looming health crisis, state prosecutors are pushing back. In a statement, officials with the Oregon District Attorneys Association said, “We strongly oppose mass release of prison inmates and call upon the Governor and the Department of Corrections to meet their duty to keep our communities safe.” Nevermind that the point of the mass release is community safety, appearances must be maintained.   

Some states are bucking the trend. Rather than release people, they are sending them to a separate location for quarantine. For example, Connecticut is sending prisoners testing positive to the Northern Correctional Institute. Someone previously incarcerated there writes, “First of all, let me say that the conditions in Northern Correctional Institution, where Connecticut’s COVID-19-positive inmates are being sent, are horrific and absolutely in no way conducive to the healing of sickly inmates. In actuality it is a place that is ‘a recipe for disaster’ as medical workers from the CTDOC have stated.” There is poor ventilation, and severe understaffing.

Like Connecticut, Louisiana is preparing to quarantine folks at a separate facility, “Camp J” at Angola Prison. Camp J has not been operational for a while- shut down because it was run down and unsafe. Perfect. It is also fairly isolated and far from hospitals. Attorneys trying to keep this from happening note

“By crowding large numbers of COVID-19 patients into a facility far removed from hospitals and adequate medical staff and where social distancing is impossible, the DOC is implementing a deadly course of action that controverts not only public health recommendations but also basic common sense,” the complaint reads. “If the DOC is permitted to carry out this LSP transfer plan, it will likely result in the death of dozens — if not hundreds or thousands — of people.” 

ICE Air flight paths including deportation flights

Among Louisiana’s immigrant detention facilities, there are confirmed cases at Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center, LaSalle Correctional Center, Winn Correctional Center, LaSalle ICE Processing Center, Richwood Correctional Center, and the Alexandria Staging Facility. These represent just a handful of ICE facilities nationally. There are confirmed cases,  now present throughout ICE’s network of detention facilities. And as with the rest of the country – worse in prisons and jails – testing is way behind.

Importantly, the cases at the Alexandria Staging Facility make this a global problem. The Alexandria facility serves as one of five hubs used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to stage deportation flights to Central America and the Caribbean. It is one of the busiest facilities, surpassed only by San Antonio. It is also the place with the highest number of confirmed cases among ICE detention staff  in the country. People deported through Alexandria have been confirmed positive in Guatemala just this week. 

ICE has made a very limited effort to release people – just under 800 over the last two weeks.  There are still 33,000 people being held in detention – and many of them are also in the same county jails that are suffering outbreaks. 

It is important to understand that what we are witnessing in horror, people trapped behind bars throughout the country increasingly testing positive for COVID-19 and dying, is not the symptom of a broken system. It is evidence of a system operating as it was designed to operate. It is simply doing so in an environment that makes the utter inhumanity of its design plainly visible for all to see. At least those willing to look at it.  We must take action now to help save lives. Longer term, this incarceration hellscape must be torn down and replaced by a system that heals communities and restores balance.

If anything good can come from this disease, let it be a recognition of the need to change institutions and create a more caring world.

Action ideas

To keep up the pressure, please sign the Detention Watch Network #FreeThemAll petition on, and remember to share it with at least ten friends. 

Petition to gain release of people from Pennsylvania Jails and Prisons.

Petition to release people from detention in New York and New Jersey.

Color of Change ‘s Humanity not Cages campaign including petitions for local and state action to decarcerate, in Los Angeles, Arizona, North Carolina, Nebraska, Michigan and more

In California, Call Local ICE Field Directors (FD) and demand they #FlattenTheCurve and #FreeThemAll

FD Jennings NorCal (Yuba and Mesa Verde) – (415) 844-5651

FD Marin Socal (Adelanto) – (213) 830- 7911 

FD Archambeault San Diego (Otay) – (619) 557-6117

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#FreeThemAll Week of Action, Day Five

We are on the second to last day of Detention Watch Networks’s #FreeThemAll National Week of Digital Action, March 30 – April 4, to demand the liberation of all people in immigration detention – please keep up the pressure! 

Day 5 – Friday, April 3: Care not Cages: Public Health Department Accountability Day 

Detention centers are a hotbed of infection. The rapid spread of mumps that occurred last year foretells what could happen when people inside ICE custody are exposed to COVID-19. As we know that medical standards developed and implemented by ICE have proven inadequate time and again leading to preventable deaths of people in their custody. Thousands of doctors have already spoken out on the need to immediately release people from immigration detention —now we must call on public health officials to hear this demand and act urgently. 

We demand that public health departments act for our collective health to #FreeThemAll, with particular urgency for people on hunger strike, a rising trend in detention centers nationwide. People are bravely speaking out the only way they can — by refusing meals, knowingly weakening their immune systems. Lives are in jeopardy and people in detention are desperate to be released immediately as COVID-19 continues to spread.

Overview of today’s day of action and how you can support: 

  • Target: State and local public health departments, ICE Field Office Directors
  • Demands (Reference the “Local Strategies” and “State and Regional Strategies” sections in DWN’s #FreeThemAll Toolkit for detailed demands) :
    • Health departments: Conduct and release the results of an in-person inquiry and on-site inspection at detention centers near you to find out if cases of COVID-19 exist there, how they are being handled, and what prevention measures are being taken; inform the public and detained people what your plans are for addressing an outbreak at local detention centers; call for the release of people in immigration detention. 
    • ICE Field Office Directors: Release all people in immigration detention, starting with people on hunger strike and other medically vulnerable individuals 
  • Actions
    • View DWN’s recent social media posts (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) and follow steps from each local campaign’s call to action targeting public health departments and ICE Field Office Directors 
    • Amplify today’s call to action from your own social media platforms and use #FreeThemAll
      1. Sample posts 
    • Participate in our  #FreeThemAll Take Action Social Media Challenge.
      1. *Action for Health Professionals*: Participate in American Friends Service Committee and Colorado People Alliance’s “Health Care Professionals Speak Out Against Immigrant Detention” Day of Action. 
    • Tune in to La Resistencia’s Facebook Live at 3pm EDT/12pm PDT where they will share updates concerning people on hunger strike and ICE retaliation at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, WA. 
    • Tune into DWN’s Live Facebook Video Premiere at 5pm EDT/2pm PDT with the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Rights (ICIJ), Physicians for Human Rights, and Doctors for Camp Closure on the intersections between health justice and immigrant justice, the health threat immigration detention poses, and what communities, including the health professionals, can do in this moment. 

For the week of action schedule of events, visit Detention Watch Network’s Action Guide.

Resources to support your work:

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Take Action: #FreeThemAll and End Deportation Flights

#FreeThemAll week of Action Continues today

Drawing connections between immigrant detention and mass incarceration.

As part of this work, there is a webinar being offered this afternoon, put together by several organizations working on decarceration in the context of the threat of COVID-19 to those behind bars.

Register here (interpretation in Spanish will be available)

You can also help to amplify social media posts from Detention Watch Network and local partners.

  • View DWN’s most recent social media posts (FacebookTwitterInstagram) and follow steps from each local campaign’s call to action targeting local law enforcement
  • Amplify each local campaign’s call to action from your own social media platforms and use #FreeThemAll

Some related news….

Federal Prisons go on total lock down (from CNN)

The US federal prison system will move to a heightened state of lockdown as it fights the spread of coronavirus behind bars, the Bureau of Prisons announced.

Beginning Wednesday, inmates will be confined to their cells for a two-week period, with exceptions for certain programs and services like mental health treatment and education.
Limited group gatherings — like access to prison stores, laundry, showers and the telephone — will be “afforded to the extent practical,” the agency said.

The strict protocols come just days after the first coronavirus death in the federal prison system — at a Louisiana prison over the weekend. As of Monday, there were 28 inmates in federal custody with confirmed coronavirus diagnoses, in addition to 24 agency employees.

Rikers Island: More than 300 cases, 2 staff have died

[T]he rate of infection in the city jails has continued to climb, and by Monday, 167 inmates, 114 correction staff and 23 health workers had tested positive. Two correction staff members have died and a “low number” of inmates have been hospitalized, officials said.

More than 800 inmates are being held in isolation or in quarantined groups because someone in their jailhouse tested positive for the virus, the president of the correction officers union said. A medical building that includes the only contagious disease unit on Rikers Island is now full of sick detainees, officials said. The unit has 88 beds.

Fear of the virus has grown among inmates and correction officers, several said in interviews. Some incarcerated people have refused to do the work assigned to them or have started disturbances, demanding more cleaning supplies and masks. Others said that correction officers who are assigned to taking people to clinics have ignored their requests for medical attention. Some correction officers said they did not have the necessary equipment to protect themselves from the virus, and that they had received little guidance from leadership.

End deportation flights!

In addition to demanding release of people incarcerated in this country, we are also demanding that ICE end enforcement actions that put communities at risk. Of crucial importance is the need to end deportation flights to Central America. Here is a petition from LAWG making that demand, and some related news articles below it.

Latin American Working Group Petition on Deportations, To Trump and DHS Acting Head Chad Wolf

We ask you to immediately stop the deportations of women, men, and children to Mexico and Central America. This is a global health crisis that requires urgent public health responses. Deporting people back to their countries or to countries they do not even know without adequate medical screenings when travel is restricted worldwide is inhumane and dangerous. Central American nations are especially ill-prepared to handle the pandemic even without these continued deportations. Closing the U.S. border to asylum seekers and returning them to wait in refugee camps in Mexico puts them at grave risk. 

We urge you to stop deportations and these policies once and for all, and instead screen and process those seeking protections at our border humanely and fairly. U.S. policies must ensure the health and safety of all our communities during this public health crisis, and not send the most vulnerable away. Now is the time for unity and compassion, not division and fear.

Sign Here

Deportations to Central America threaten to spread COVID-19 (The Nation)

For detained immigrants, the threat of deportation—now during a pandemic—still looms. The administration has seemingly doubled down on removals, despite banning international travel from certain countries affected by the virus and trying to shut down the US-Mexico border. In an emergency budget request sent to Congress on March 17, the White House asked for $249 million in ICE funding, some of which would fund deportation flights. “With fewer commercial flight options,” the letter reads, “ICE charter aircraft are needed” so deportations can continue…

Detention and deportation not only increase the risk of transmission for immigrants in ICE custody—they also risk exporting the virus from the United States to countries unprepared to deal with mass outbreaks. Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador take in thousands of deported nationals every month, and they may be forced to continue doing so even as the pandemic spreads.

Guatemalan Deported from the U.S. tests positive for Coronavirus (Al Jazeera)

A Guatemalan man who was deported from the United States last week has tested positive for the novel coronavirus, the Guatemalan Health Ministry said late on Sunday.

A spokeswoman for the Guatemalan Health Ministry told Al Jazeera the 29-year-old man from Momostenango, Totonicapan, was deported last Thursday on a flight chartered by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. The flight, with at least 40 others on board, originated in Mesa, Arizona, according to the Guatemalan Migration Institute.

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