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
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
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.
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.
[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.
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.
Day 3 – Wednesday, April 1: #DefundHate and #FreeThemAll
Reject COVID-19 ICE & CBP Funding. For too long, our representatives in Congress have claimed to care about our communities while approving billions of dollars for a deadly detention and deportation machine. Today, we tell Congress that this ends now. Giving ICE and CBP more funding to expand their cruel enforcement system is never the solution– join us in calling on your representatives to instead invest in what communities really need like financial relief and access to health care, while telling ICE and CBP to #FreeThemAll.
You can send a letter to your members of Congress below
Overview of today’s day of action and other ways you can support:
Targets: Members of Congress
Reject any funding for ICE and CBP in any future COVID-19 funding package and instead direct ICE to free people from detention
Include strict transfer and reprogramming limitations to keep funds from being moved to ICE and CBP for immigration enforcement
Amplify today’s call to action from your own social media platforms and use #FreeThemAll and #DefundHate
Join DWN’s #FreeThemAll/#DefundHate Twitterstorm at 2pm EDT/ 11am PDT targeting House and Senate leadership, Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and Congressional Progressive Caucus. Sample tweets can be found in our Defund Hate Twitterstorm Toolkit.
Day 2 – Tuesday, March 31: Let Our People Go/Trans Day of Visibility (From Detention Watch Network)
Today we are honoring Trans Day of Visibility and calling on local elected officials to put pressure on ICE to immediately release people in detention. Let’s center the leadership and expertise of trans and queer-led organizing efforts to #EndTransDetention and #FreeThemAll.
Overview of today’s day of action and how you can support:
Target: Local officials, such as governors, mayors, city council members, board of supervisors
Call for the liberation of trans individuals in detention
Urge local elected officials to contact their ICE Field Office Director to demand:
They use their discretionary powers to release immigrants in immigration detention and stop all immigration enforcement
Declare detention centers as non-essential businesses
Demand they shut down the operation of detention center
Tune into DWN’s Facebook Live discussion with Black LGBTQIA+, TransLatin@ Coalition, and Famila: TQLM at 5pm EDT/2pm PDT on how immigration detention impacts Black and trans immigrants and why it’s imperative to center their struggle in the movement to end immigration detention
Send emails, make calls and tweet at your local elected officials
Reference the Local Strategies and State & Regional Sections in DWN’s #FreeThemAll Toolkit for call-in scripts, email templates, and how to contact your local officials
This is the first day of a cyber-week of action to get people held in immigrant detention released, and to get Immigration and Customs Enforcement to suspend enforcement and removal operations. We have written several background articles on the campaign, and the dangers of incarceration for people at this time.
The targets for today’s action are ICE Field Directors, who have the authority to release people in their jurisdictions. Below are several campaign ideas from Detention Watch Network, including links to local social media actions.
You can amplify these campaigns by sharing information on social media, whether you live in these areas or not. If you do not live in one of these areas, and want to make a call, or send a message to an ICE field office closer to home, we have provided that contact information below.
If you can, simply help get the word out by sharing one (or all) of these sample posts on social media platforms you participate on- that would help.
Starting on March 30, @Detention Watch Network, along with communities across the country, are coming together for the #FreeThemAll National Week of Digital Action to demand the immediate release of all people in immigration detention in response to the #COVID19 pandemic. Learn how you can join and take action: bit.ly/FreeThemAllAction
@DetentionWatch, along w/ communities across the country, are coming together for the #FreeThemAll National Week of Digital Action to demand the immediate release of all people in immigration detention in response to the #COVID19 pandemic. Join us: bit.ly/FreeThemAllAction
Starting on March 30, @DetentionWatch, along with communities across the country, are coming together for the #FreeThemAll National Week of Digital Action to demand the immediate release of all people in immigration detention in response to the #COVID19 pandemic. Learn how you can join and take action: bit.ly/FreeThemAllAction
Monday 3/30: Demand ICE #FreeThemAll!
Targets: ICE Field Office Directors
Demands:Immediately release all people in immigration detention and cease all immigration enforcement and removal operations
Amplify each local campaign’s call to action from your own social media platforms and use #FreeThemAll. Find sample posts in our Action Guide.
Tune into DWN’s Facebook Live discussion with OCAD and Centro de Trabajadores Unidos at 2:00 pm EST/1:00 pm CST/11:00am PST on their local efforts targeting their ICE Field Director, recent wins and the continuous fight to #FreeThemAll.
We are running out of time to save the lives of those incarcerated in the world’s largest network of prisons, jails, and detention sites. There are 2 million people incarcerated in the United States – more than any other country on the planet. They are all at risk.
In just the last three days, states and large cities have announced lockdowns, seeking to restrict the movement of people and lessen points of contact in the face of a dramatic spike in COVID-19 infections. Social distancing coupled with regimens of basic hygiene such as regular hand washing are the primary means of fighting the spread of coronavirus generally and COVID-19 in particular. There is no vaccine, no cure. Its spread can only be managed through changes in human behavior – and those recommended changes are not available to people who are locked up. As even the most isolated jail cell requires a degree of social interaction between those incarcerated and the community in which they are situated, what happens behind these walls should concern us all.
The biggest story this week has been the COVID-19 outbreak at the massive Rikers Island prison complex, which is under the authority of the city government in New York. As of March 24, the number of people imprisoned at Rikers with confirmed cases of COVID-19 was 52, up from 39 cases fewer than 24 hours earlier. The number of staff testing positive was up to 30 from 21. Prisoners protesting the lack of medical care were pepper sprayed earlier this week. In a long twitter thread yesterday, a public defender from Brooklyn compared Rikers to a “slave ship” noting that unsanitary conditions and overcrowding were setting the stage for “mass death.” There are more than 5,000 people incarcerated at Rikers Island. However, city officials are only planning to release 300 people. Mayor DeBlasio plans to release another 800 people from other city jail facilities.
PLEASE READ: Conditions on Rikers are unimaginably bad. My colleague has spoken to a few people trapped inside. What they told her is horrifying. Unless @NYGovCuomo, @NYCMayor, & all DAs do something ASAP, we’re looking at mass death. What they’re reporting:
Last week, a man with a medical history that makes him especially vulnerable to contracting coronavirus, housed in a special-housing unit in one Rikers jail, called a social worker twice in one day to report that he was exhibiting symptoms of disease. Others in his special housing unit were coughing and exhibiting flu-like symptoms, the man told the social worker, who relayed the account to a lawyer who asked that they all remain anonymous to avoid reprisals. The men in the unit were told that there were not enough correction officers to transport them to the health clinic.
Yesterday, a reporter with the Appeal spoke with someone inside Rikers who described how medical personal simply shouted from the door to ask if anyone had symptoms:
The doctors said they were going to come and do screenings every day, but for the past two days, they’ve just come into the dorm and stood by the front door and yelled, “Does anybody have any symptoms?” and then walked out. The first day, they sat down, had everybody come in, checked them off a list, asked them if they had symptoms, if anyone said they weren’t sure, they took their temperature.
They’re not doing any of that [now]. They did that once. And now they just come in and yell. Some people don’t speak English, some people are in the shower or the toilet or the day room or listening to the radio or taking a nap, you know? Because if one person has it in a dorm of 40-odd people, that’s a huge problem.
Outside of New York City, there have been some successful, though still sporadic, efforts to reduce the number of people who are locked up at the local level. There are just over 630,000 people in county and local jails around the country. 470,000 of them have not been convicted but are being held in pre-trial detention, most simply unable to pay bail. So, we can, and must do better. That said, county and state officials are at least trying to reduce numbers in local jails through early and compassionate release of those at risk.
For example, in New Jersey, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner of the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered the release of hundreds of inmates in county jails, writing, “The reduction of county jail populations, under appropriate conditions, is in the public interest to mitigate risks imposed by Covid-19.” In Montana, Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath is asking judges statewide to release nonviolent and other jail inmates to reduce crowding and protect against the spread of coronavirus. Though no one in local jails has tested positive, the judge wrote,”Due to the confines of these facilities, it will be virtually impossible to contain the spread of the virus.”
Detroit area counties are reducing the number of people in jail. For example, “In Oakland County, Sheriff Michael Bouchard tells Local 4 [an NBC affiliate] jail personnel is reviewing cases for early release. It is a time consuming process because they are looking at the current offense and history of offenders.” The number of people in the jail has fallen from 1,262 to 1,079 in three weeks. Wayne County reduced the number of people in jail from 1,381 to 1,138 in two weeks. Los Angeles County has seen a reduction of nearly 1,700 over the last two weeks, or 10% of the jail population. “All of those inmates had fewer than 30 days left on their sentences. And all were convicted of nonviolent misdemeanors.”
Other areas are committed, but struggling to get the releases done. For example, Harris County, TX (Houston) Sheriff Ed Gonzalez is trying to get hundreds of people out on compassionate release. But, thus far, judges have only released 60 people. “Our priority is reducing the population strategically in a way that targets our most at-risk inmates who are nonviolent,” said Jason Spencer, spokesman for Gonzalez. “Those charged with nonviolent crimes over a certain age and those who have preexisting health conditions that make them especially vulnerable to corona virus.” In Kentucky, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Minton Jr. urged state court officials to release jail inmates “as quickly as we can” to “avoid potentially calamitous outbreaks of the novel coronavirus behind bars.” But thus far, there has been no reduction in the jail population. The justice warned, “Kentucky’s overcrowded jails desperately need our attention…Much like nursing homes, jails are susceptible to worse-case scenarios due to the close proximity of people and the number of pre-existing conditions.”
As indicated by these stories, counties all across the country are working to get people out. At the same time, as described by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, “no similar push has taken place with prisons, despite the fact that the coronavirus has already infected employees and prisoners in at least five states.” There are over 1.2 million people in state prisons around the country. This is a ticking time bomb, and yet, little comparative urgency to get people out.
In Utah, for example, while county jail officials are trying to reduce the number of people incarcerated, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, the state prison authority declared that there are, “‘no active plans’ as of Tuesday to release any of the more than 6,500 people who are currently incarcerated. ‘We are coordinating with our partner agencies at this time,’ prison spokeswoman Kaitlin Feldsted said, ‘and will likely have more information later in the week.’”
In Texas, one prisoner and one counselor working in the state prison system, have tested positive, while dozens who have been tested await results. Within the state prison system, visitations have been cancelled as the result of a statewide health emergency crisis called by Governor Abbott. However, state prison authorities have no capacity to test for the virus. Everyone tested thus far has been tested off-site, increasing the danger of exposure. Many more prisoners with flu-like symptoms have not been tested but are “being medically isolated from other prisoners.” Yet, getting people out of prison altogether is not on the table, despite the risks.
In Mississippi, the state Department of Corrections has issued guidelines to stop transfers of prisoners and halted visitation. People participating in off-site work programs are not being allowed out. However, humanitarian or compassionate releases on any significant scale are not being planned. At the notorious Parchman Prison, already understaffed, people are staying away from work. From the Clarion Ledger,
Fears of the coronavirus are running so high at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman that some employees are staying away, renewing concerns about low staffing at the prison, which is already under investigation by the Justice Department.
Lucinda Addison, a case worker, said she has stayed away from Parchman for a week out of fear of catching COVID-19 because she already suffers from diabetes. Experts say those suffering from diabetes may be at higher risk for complications from the disease.
Her absence from the prison has stoked fears among inmates and family members that someone at the prison already has tested positive for the novel virus.
In New York, which has become ground zero for coronavirus infections in the United States, the state prison system has not been spared. Indeed, while all eyes are on Rikers Island in New York City, coronavirus is spreading in the state system as well. From the New Yorker:
The coronavirus has now found its way into New York’s prison system. On Sunday, the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, or D.O.C.C.S., confirmed that two prisoners at Wende Correctional Facility had tested positive for covid-19. (One of them, according to multiple reports, is the former movie producer Harvey Weinstein, who was sent to the facility only recently after being convicted of rape.) Health officials in Cayuga County announced that the coronavirus had infected a man who had been incarcerated at Auburn Correctional Facility. D.O.C.C.S. has also confirmed three cases of covid-19 in its ranks: one officer at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, another at Shawangunk Correctional Facility, and one civilian staff member in Albany.
Immigrant Detention Facilities
The number of people held in immigrant detention facilities is difficult to track. Generally speaking, we track this by looking at the number of people held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in their network of 200+ detention sites around the country. That number is currently just over 38,000, down from an all time peak of 55,000 in August of 2019, but still among the highest numbers ever recorded.
This is not everybody, however. There are also another 3,000 to 4,000 people held by the Customs and Border Protection on any given day. CBP tends to be short-term detention but is renowned for having horrible conditions – those videos and pictures of people under freezing on concrete floors under mylar blankets are CBP facilities. Of course, many people released by CBP are destined to be then held by ICE for much longer. There are another 3,000 or so children currently held by the Office of Refugee Resettlement awaiting placement with family members or community sponsors. The large tent cities erected last year to hold kids are mostly gone, but children are still in custodial settings that put them at higher risk of contracting infectious diseases. Indeed, two staff members working at “undisclosed” ORR facilities caring for children tested positive this week.
Thus far, the primary focus on the #FreeThemAll campaign has been ICE detention. There are good reasons for this. ICE detention is longer term – and getting longer under Trump. The average stay is about two months, and some people end up in detention for well over a year. None of the people in detention are there serving criminal sentences. All are in administrative hold, or civil detention, and thus can be released at the discretion of ICE with no further judicial process. The conditions in detention facilities, especially regarding health services, have been documented repeatedly to be sub-standard. In just the last week, two people have died in detention from infections.
When it comes to immigration policy, Trump sets the most abusive standards possible within the current institutional framework he inherited, and then advocates pushback in the courts. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, Trump refuses to willingly change course on immigration rules – be it inside or outside our borders. And so, in court, people are fighting to gain release of people in immigration detention. In one recent court filing, Dr. Homer Venters submitted evidence concerning conditions in detention centers. He writes:
ICE will not be able to stop the entry of COVID-19 into ICE facilities, and the reality is that the infection is likely inside multiple facilities already. When COVID-19 impacts a community, it will also impact the detention facilities. In New Jersey, one employee at an ICE detention facility has already tested positive, and this is likely just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the number of ICE staff that are already infected but are unaware due to the lack of testing nationwide, and the fact that people who are infected can be asymptomatic for several days. In New York, one of the areas of early spread in the U.S., multiple correctional officers and jail and prison inmates have become infected with COVID-19. The medical leadership in the NYC jail system have announced that they will be unable to stop COVID from entering their facility and have called for release as the primary response to this crisis. Staff are more likely to bring COVID-19 into a facility, based solely on their movement in and out every day.
Venters goes on to document, what everyone knows, that social distancing and sheltering in place are impossible inside a prison or detention facility. Attorneys Naureen Shah and Andrea Flores noted this more vividly on the ACLU blog yesterday.
Immigrants in government custody are forced to live, sleep, and eat together. Some spend nearly all day in large rooms filled with closely packed bunk beds, or just long concrete benches. Others live in dank two-person cells, sometimes with minimal ventilation. Dozens of people share toilets and showers, sometimes with no divider and without disinfection between use. Social distancing is not an option. With everything we’ve learned from the Centers for Disease Control, we know these conditions are dangerous, even deadly.
For immigrants in detention, the tools for basic hygiene aren’t available either. Many people don’t have access to soap, let alone hand sanitizer. In Border Patrol stations, many immigrants are detained in overcrowded cells without ready access to sinks and showers. Detained people have described feeling like “sitting ducks, waiting to be infected.” One detained man in New Jersey said he and others were on a hunger strike to try to obtain soap and toilet paper — and that guards reportedly said, “Well, you’re going to have to die of something.”
We are all going to die of something, but for those who would rather not die in the next two weeks strapped to a ventilator and drowning in their own mucus, the federal government could do one a simple thing to make that less likely, and even save money doing so: Release people in immigrant detention facilities. Today.
So, how has ICE responded? The number of people detained by ICE has actually increased over the last two weeks – reversing a 6-month-long period of decline – (though overall March numbers, with a week remaining, are still slightly behind February’s daily average). Indeed, rather than release people, ICE and CBP are trying to get hundreds of millions of dollars to build and manage quarantine facilities. So, agencies that have refused to provide flu vaccines to people in their custody, have refused to hold contractors accountable over decades of medical negligence, and under whose supervision people die from simple infections for lack of care are going to manage medical quarantine? The last thing we need is to make a coronavirus quarantine of immigrants the latest profit-driven experiment for the prison industry.
As fear of infection spreads, detainees have begun protests in facilities in Texas and Louisiana, only to be attacked by guards and pepper-sprayed. Both facilities run by private prison companies. In Pine Prairie, Louisiana, seven men were pepper sprayed and beaten, then placed in solitary after refusing guard orders to go to the yard. At a Pearsall, Texas detention facility, guards attacked a group of 60 men who were protesting for their release. A local attorney told the San Antonio Express:
“These are people sitting, trapped, at the government’s expense without access to proper medical care, so they’re freaking out,” said Andrés Perez, an immigration lawyer for the San Antonio-based Perez & Malik firm. “Pepper spray is uncalled for.”
Elvira is from Cameroon. She has been held in several different detention centers over the course of the last 3 years of seeking asylum in the United States. Three years in detention!
In Adelanto Detention Center, a privately owned facility operated by GEO Group in Los Angeles, Elvira has told her sisters that the conditions are woefully inadequate to protect against the spread of the coronavirus. She has not received a flu shot, so how, she wonders, will such a facility take precautions against a far more contagious disease? Although only 26, Elvira has conditions that make her more vulnerable should she contract COVID-19. She has suffered complications since giving birth, she’s asthmatic, she has high blood pressure, and she developed hepatitis A from drinking the water in a detention center. When she was diagnosed, she was told to buy water from the commissary at inflated prices. And she still experiences terrible back pain from when government forces in Cameroon beat her with the heel of a gun.
Why is Elvira still incarcerated? She is not a criminal. She has family that can receive her and a community that will support her. She has a strong case for asylum. She should have never been held to begin with. She should be released now.
Along with 37,000 other people in immigrant detention facilities.
And hundreds of thousands of people held in jails and prisons around the country.
“Viruses know no borders and they don’t care about your ethnicity or the color of your skin or how much money you have in the bank,” Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization health emergencies program.
Undoubtedly Dr. Ryan is correct about viruses – presumably viruses have no conscious motives at all, at least on this side of an M. Night Shyamalan film script. Unfortunately, real viruses exist in a world full of people who care a great deal about borders, ethnicity, the color of one’s skin, and the amount of money we have in the bank. It is the distribution of power among those people that determines who gets tested and treated, who loses a job or goes bankrupt, who is treated with basic human dignity and who is caged like an animal or turned away at the border. It seems clear that at a time when anyone can get novel coronavirus, the best antidote is to protect everybody. But that would mean setting aside concern for borders, and biases against the poor and people of color. Clearly that won’t happen any time soon.
At the Border
The first line of defense has been hardening borders. Remember, coronavirus spread outside of China through travel. Millions of people move across borders every day, including some who do not know they are carrying the virus that causes COVID-19. A person traveling across town is no less likely to carry the virus. Indeed, in the United States as in the rest of the world, “community spread,” not foreign travel, is now the chief way novel coronavirus is disseminated. And so, the emphasis on shutting down borders – while inside those borders people move freely – is an illusory solution. More to the point, however, the way that borders are shut matters.
On Friday, the Trump administration announced an agreement with the government of Mexico for the “partial” closing of the U.S./Mexico border. The agreement limits “nonessential” travel, and in its broad outlines, is similar to an earlier agreement with Canada. What constitutes “essential travel” is clear:
Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf assured that North American trade would not be affected by the U.S.’ agreement with Canada and Mexico to partially close the border.
“Let me be clear that neither of these agreements with Canada or Mexico applies to lawful trade or commerce. Essential commerce activities will not be impacted. We will continue to maintain a strong and secure economic supply chain across our borders,” Wolf said Friday.
Maintaining strong “supply chains” means people cross the border with goods – unless buried in the latest emergency supplemental is money for levitation spells. Driving a truckload of avocados across the border is “essential” travel. People fleeing for their lives is “non-essential” travel. While trade continues, anyone who crosses the border between ports of entry will simply be deported without any further processing or investigation of asylum claims. For those who present themselves at a port of entry, most will also be turned back, though Mexico has said it will only accept non-Mexican nationals from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and only after they are screened.
We could point out here that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees made clear, that while, “[a]ll states must manage their borders in the context of this unique crisis as they see fit…these measures should not result in closure of avenues to asylum, or of forcing people to return to situations of danger.” We could also point out that Trump tried denying asylum to people picked up between ports of entry before there was something called COVID-19. He was denied by Federal Courts because the statute on asylum is very clear: anyone, no matter how they get here, can apply for asylum once they are on U.S. soil.
In Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the governments are trying to restrict movement and shut down borders just like the rest of the world. One of the exceptions forced on these governments is deportation flights from the United States. For example, last week, the government of Honduras said it would not receive deportation flights from Mexico and the United States following several confirmed cases of novel coronavirus. On Friday, Chad Wolf at DHS said deportation flights would continue. On Sunday, the United States put 92 people on a plane to deport them to Honduras. Most were then put into a separate facility near the airport in San Pedro Sula upon arrival, though several somehow escaped between the plane and the military escort. The United States is continuing to deport people to Guatemala – even though Guatemala has closed its principal international airport. El Salvador has stood firm on not accepting deportation flights thus far. We’ll see how long that lasts.
So, in terms of border security two things seem true. Business will continue, indeed will not be impacted (at least in government press releases) and refugees will be stopped from coming into the United States completely. These policies are not the result of public health planning or epidemiological evidence. This is simply knee jerk nationalism coupled with bone throwing to Wall Street. Result: the politics of border security ensure that these measures will ultimately be ineffective in slowing the spread of coronavirus.
Citizen vs Non-citizen
Of course, across the globe we are all now living in a state of exception. Which is to say, we are left not with the rule of law, but official determinations of where exceptions to the law will emerge and who they will apply to. We set aside rights and rules because of emergencies. And we do not do this in a neutral way. What could go wrong?
Inside our national boundaries, implementation of exceptions to the law is drawing new borders around communities. As Dr. Ryan says, the coronavirus does not care where you were born. Unfortunately, the U.S. Congress does – no matter where you actually live. The Family First Act specifically excludes many immigrants, most residing here lawfully, from receiving support under Medicaid for treatment. The National Immigration Law Center notes, “Many lawfully residing immigrants — including people granted DACA, most lawful permanent residents during their first five years in that status, survivors of crime granted U visas, people from certain Pacific Island nations, and people with TPS–along with those without status, are ineligible for federal Medicaid.” What this means, of course, is that people who live in this country – most lawfully – who interact with other people who live in this country daily, are denied access to federal assistance that people otherwise similarly situated would be able to access. It is not like they are not paying taxes or otherwise being a burden. But denying treatment to this population causes everyone to suffer.
Sadly, many of the same people – taxpayers remember – are denied access to the envisioned tax rebate being debated right now. The National Immigration Law Center explains,
The proposed bill leaves out tax filers who have worked and earned income like other taxpayers covered by this bill by excluding households whose tax returns include taxpayers or children who file with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). These families include U.S. citizen children and spouses who are also harmed by the COVID-1 crisis. This exclusion of mixed-status families and individual ITIN filers is both deeply unfair and will exclude families hardest hit by this emergency. It could also make it more difficult to ensure that families can shelter in place, to protect public health.
Limiting non-citizen access to health services and economic support to ensure people stay home when necessary, undermines every effort at containment there is. It is not just these families who will suffer as a result of such restrictions. Again, everyone will.
Then we have the smaller borders drawn around the bodies of people society has decided should be locked away. As we have written about separately, for those inside prison walls and detention centers, the risk of coronavirus is grave indeed. The state of New York has topped 26,000 infections, and so, of course, this has impacted prisons like Rikers Island where an outbreak of COVID-19 has now occurred. Certainly it will get much worse, as people cannot “shelter in place” or practice social distancing inside a prison. Reports from inside Rikers are that prisoners were pepper sprayed for demanding medical treatment yesterday.
As people around the country are being encouraged to keep their movements to a minimum, the Federal Bureau of Prisons is still transferring inmates between facilities, despite the evident risks involved, and despite a 30-day moratorium on most movements. ABC reported yesterday,
Over the weekend, three inmates in the Bureau of Prisons tested positive for the coronavirus. Two tested positive at FCC Oakdale, Louisiana, and one at MDC New York.
According to the BOP, the inmate arrived at Metropolitan Detention Center, Brooklyn, on March 16. On March 19, he complained of chest pains and was taken to an outside hospital, where personnel performed a test for COVID-19. On March 20, he was discharged back to MDC Brooklyn and immediately placed in isolation. On Monday, the BOP was notified that his test results for COVID-19 were positive.
Two sources, at different facilities, have told ABC News that inmates came into their facilities, with no explanation given.
At FCI Tallahassee in Tallahassee, Florida, recently 12 inmates, were transferred into the facility – despite the 30-day stoppage on inmate movements.
Inmates from prisons in New York were transferred to three facilities in Pennsylvania, a source explained.
Finally, Trump has shown no willingness to release immigrants from detention, even as a loud chorus of people, including a former acting director of ICE, encourage him to do so. As we went to great lengths to explain last week – none of the people in detention are serving criminal sentences. All are in civil detention and can be released at the discretion of ICE field directors. Some do have criminal records, and under Clinton-era immigration laws are deportable, even if their offenses were committed years ago. However, very few of the people in detention right now offer any kind of threat to their communities – remember traffic violations constitute the single largest crime that have made some of these folks “deportable.” Indeed, over half have no criminal record at all – and are detained awaiting a hearing with an immigration judge. The transferring of detainees between different facilities goes on all of the time – it is the main reason why 5 isolated cases of mumps reported in December of 2018 turned into an epidemic impacting 1,000 detainees in facilities around the country by March of 2019. With such a track record, ICE cannot be trusted to manage a public health crisis of the magnitude of COVID-19.
Drawing borders around people is no way to contain a disease. Indeed, all of these borderlines are ultimately making it harder to contain novel coronavirus and COVID-19. Putting immigrants, non-citizens and the poor at risk out a false political narrative about who “deserves” assistance and/or protection threatens everyone. As Dr. Ryan noted, viruses are indifferent to this political desire to classify our neighbors along some hierarchy of concern. If we do not adapt our way of thinking and acting, we are all at risk.
Tear Down the Walls
We are engaged in advocacy on all of these points, and invite you to raise your voice as well. Things you can do right now:
Join in the call for the immediate release of people from immigrant detention and other forms of incarceration. For ideas on how to organize in your community check out this tool kit from Detention Watch Network, #FreeThemAll.
We joined 630+ other organizations in demanding that any effort Congress makes at addressing coronavirus be open to everyone! This letter is here. You can help get the word by forwarding the letter and list of signers to your Senators’ offices. Some of the language promoted in this letter was included in the House version of the latest coronavirus legislation introduced last night!
The Trump administration should not be allowed to simply set aside decades of asylum law as they have repeatedly tried to do over the last year. The latest effort is, frankly, and quite clearly, illegal! You can sign, and share, this petition seeking to block this latest effort to block asylum.
Another person has died in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Yesterday word came that a man from Honduras died in an apparent suicide while incarcerated at the Karnes County Detention Facility outside of San Antonio, Texas. The man had been detained in mid-February as part of a “family unit.” He applied for asylum and was denied following a credible fear interview. He then lost an appeal of this decision and was facing deportation back to Honduras when he took his own life. Details of who was traveling with him or what decision had been made in their case(s) are not publicly available. He is the ninth person to die in ICE custody since October 1. We remember all of those who have died in ICE custody. This year they are:
Nebane Abienwi, from Cameroon, October 1, 2019. Otay Mesa Detention facility (CoreCivic).
Roylan Hernandez-Diaz, from Cuba, October 15, 2019, Richwood Correctional Facility (Lasalle Corrections)
Anthony Oluseye Akinyemi from Nigeria, December 21, 2019. Worcester County Jail
Samuelino Pitchout Mavinga from France, December 29, 2019. Otero County Processing Center (Management Training Corporation)
Ben James Owen from Britain, January 26, 2020. Baker County Detention Center (Baker County Sheriff’s Office)
On Monday, January 27, 2020, A 63-year-old Cuban man died in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody at a hospital in Florida. Name not released.
Hernandez Colula from Mexico, February 21, 2020 died in hospital after transfer from facility in Ohio
Maria Celeste Ochoa Yoc de Ramirez from Guatemala, March 8, 2020 Prairieland Detention Facility (LaSalle Corrections)
Across the country – indeed the world – people are being asked to shelter in place, avoid crowds and practice “social distancing” as the chief means to combat the spread of novel coronavirus/COVID-19. Every day major news outlets update total confirmed cases and the number of deaths. We are told to take this seriously – as we should – and all of our lives have been disrupted, routines changed, and sacrifices demanded of us.
And yet, for the Trump administration and its de-humanizing approach to immigration, the beat simply goes on with only minor adjustments. For example, though Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have sought to suspend deportation flights from the United States, the administration has made no public commitment to do so. Flights have slowed down, but at least one flight was conducted to Guatemala this week. Today Chad Wolf announced that deportation flights to Mexico would continue.
The administration has already helped create a public health crisis at the border with Mexico by forcing nearly 60,000 people to wait in Mexico while awaiting asylum hearings in makeshift immigration courts. Now, it seems, the administration is preparing to use the pretext of the coronavirus to deny everyone at the border asylum, indeed, any due process. In a proposed policy, anyone captured at the border will be summarily deported with no hearing. The final outlines of this “policy” have not been released. Clearly such a policy, if it were to be implemented, would lead to a rapid deterioration of conditions at the border.
ICE and Customs and Border Protection are lining up to get extra funds as the result of the $1 trillion emergency coronavirus bill being debated in congress right now. The bill includes money for CBP to build 9 quarantine facilities and for ICE to convert 4 facilities for quarantine. Such measures indicate no intention to release people – which would be the safest option. Obviously neither agency is a public health entity and have no business overseeing health quarantines of any kind. (Though no doubt “business” is what this is all about to begin with!)
Enforcement operations within the United States are supposed to “slow down” to discourage extra crowding in detention facilities, but as of now ICE has no intention of letting people out. This is completely the wrong approach. For people in detention and for those in jails and prisons around the country, their lives are at risk in the face of the usual indifference given to their fates. In the face of that indifference, we are going to keep talking about this until people are let out!
People who are incarcerated are not able to implement safety precautions consistent with what the rest of us are being told to do. Basic infection control methods, such as regular handwashing, are not available to many. Soap is not readily available, sinks are few and often unsanitary, and items like hand sanitizer are often denied inside jails because of alcohol content (though New York found it appropriate to have prisoners make hand sanitizer for others). In crowded facilities, it is difficult to segregate people who may be at risk. Access to medical services is substandard in the best of times. Social distancing is basically impossible. For these reasons and others, we and many others have been sounding the alarm that prisons, jails, and detention facilities are a ticking time bomb for the spread of novel coronavirus/COVID-19. It is not a matter of if, but simply when it is introduced. Once it happens, conditions will lead to a rapid spread that puts lives at risks: those incarcerated, the people who work at these facilities, and the surrounding community.
What this means is that people must be released from incarceration, as many as possible, as quickly as possible. For those in prisons and jails, this means the elderly, those nearing the end of their sentences, and anyone else in an at-risk category. Officials should engage in a review of other individual cases so that people can be released into non-custodial monitoring, or simply released, depending on their original sentences. Finally, of the 2 million people incarcerated in this country, over 500,000 have not even been convicted of a crime yet. They are sitting in local jails simply for the inability to pay bail. They should all be released immediately.
Thus far, officials are limiting visitations, and some localities around the country are negotiating releases, including Prince George’s County in Maryland, Mecklenberg County Jail in Mississippi, Travis County in Texas, and others. However, large scale releases have not occurred yet. Within the Federal Bureau of Prisons system, visitations are also being denied and officials have laid out screening protocols. In all, these responses are insufficient as preventative measures and are putting hundreds of thousands of peoples lives at risk.
In immigration detention facilities, the context of incarceration mirrors what many others are facing in prisons and jails. They face the same poor health systems and same unsanitary conditions. There is a difference, however.
People in immigration detention facilities are not there because they have committed a crime. They are in civil detention while the government decides whether they can stay in this country, or if they must leave. As such civil detention is not supposed to be punitive in nature. While some people in detention may have been convicted of a crime before being placed in detention, in those cases they have already completed their sentences in domestic facilities- in many cases years prior to detention. They are only in detention now because the U.S. government decided that non-citizens with criminal records can be deported. Some others may have been picked up by law enforcement and may or may not have committed a crime, but were transferred to ICE before going to court. Which means, they are in detention solely because they do not have official authorization to be in the country – or could not prove it when arrested. Finally, MOST are in detention for reasons that have nothing to do with criminal actions (suspected or otherwise). They are simply waiting for the government to decide whether they can stay. Today, this includes 6,000 people seeking asylum who have already passed crediblefear interviews and should, by ICE’s own regulations, be released.
Precisely because immigrant detention is civil, not criminal, detention, all of these people can be released at the discretion of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s administration. ICE will demure and say they are required to enforce the law. However, the law allows them discretion. Again, immigrant detention is NOT criminal detention! The fact that ICE announcements emphasize the number of criminals detained is a smokescreen to conflate immigration and criminality in the public’s mind.
Importantly, the point is not that people in immigrant detention are more deserving of release than those in prisons and jails. To be clear, when we say #FreeThemAll, we mean it. The point is simply that the process requires no new authorizations. ICE can allow people to leave detention with a scheduled check-in at a future date, and can do this relatively quickly. They can save lives. The only impediment is the political posturing of this administration that maintains detentions as a means to deter others who might seek shelter in the United States.
We shared a tool kit from Detention Watch Network to help folks organize in their communities to demand the release of more people from detention. You can view that here. As before, we share some active, state based efforts, to FreeThemAll!
The United States has the largest prison population on the planet. Though the number of people incarcerated has been falling over the last five years, there are still close to 2 million people in federal and state prisons, county and local jails, and in the 200 + detention facilities run by Immigrant and Customs Enforcement and border detention facilities run by Customs and Border Protection. People who are incarcerated are at a much higher risk of infectious diseases than the general population. Prisons are overcrowded, sanitary conditions are often extremely poor, and access to health services is limited, especially emergency health services that require moving people out of prisons for proper treatment. Incidents of denial of care and delays in getting needed treatment for those incarcerated is well documented throughout the prison system. Private prisons have received the most scrutiny in this regard. However, they hold a relatively small number of the people in state and local prisons and jails, and a declining number – approximately 10% – of those in federal prison. In detention facilities run by ICE, however, private contractors oversee the incarceration of nearly 75% of immigrant detainees. Conditions in publicly run facilities are not much better, and increasingly many public facilities contract with private firms for the delivery of health services anyway. In short, the systemic reality of incarceration is detrimental to the health of those imprisoned, the people working at the facilities, and the broader public. These environmental problems are often magnified by incentives to keep costs as low as possible – which translates into a reduction of services.
As a result of these conditions, the spread of infectious disease is a recurring problem in prisons, raising concerns about the possibility of COVID-19 spreading in prisons and detention facilities.
Detention Watch Network has created an organizing toolkit for folks willing to step up and work toward the release of folk in detention facilities, jails and prisons. The toolkit is actually pretty amazing in scope – covering ideas for federal, state and local actions, including sample letters, emails and call-scripts to policy makers, as well as a variety of templates, including letters for attorneys filing for humanitarian release. There are also guides for creating (or engaging with existing!) community networks that provide support for people upon release from detention. You can view the entire document here.
Part of the document – that I will lift out here – is a list of petitions that are open around the country. These are quick actions you can take right now!
Yesterday, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network issued a five point statement on justice for immigrants and workers in response to the coronavirus and COVID-19. You can read the full statement and background here. The five points:
STOP ICE and CBP :
Enact an immediate moratorium on all ICE and CBP enforcement (detentions and deportations) to allow families, communities, localities and states to develop and implement effective community-wide responses to this public health challenge. There is no greater way to exacerbate today’s crisis with ICE and CBP hell-bent on terrorizing communities, accelerating deportations, and increasing the detained population. Instead, funds and personnel should be reassigned and redeployed to CDC, FEMA, and other emergency needs.
DISMANTLE THE CAMPS :
Dismantle immigrant detention, concentration camps and programs such as MPP that exacerbate the public health dangers, and include a plan to return individuals to their families and receiving families. In response to COVID-19, other countries are proactively releasing thousands to their families. DHS was already unable to provide even basic sanitary conditions while deaths in their custody are mounting. Forcibly keeping tens of thousands in squalid conditions, while adding people despite the foreseeable consequences, is criminally negligent.
MEDICINE FOR ALL :
Emergency action plans for healthcare, testing, and vaccines must be freely available to all, including undocumented workers and families. From every level of government, healthcare entity, whether public or private, we must resist dehumanization in all of its forms, and proactively address and challenge racist exploitation of the pandemic. Stigmatizing individuals or excluding them from the US coronavirus response would constitute both a serious flaw in what can only be an “all hands on deck” social effort, and it would be a dark stain on the US society.
WORKER PROTECTIONS :
Policies on paid sick leave and unemployment insurance often exclude low wage immigrant workers whether explicitly due to legal status, or implicitly through requirements related to employer size and duration of employment. Worker protection policies must have broad coverage in order to protect all workers who most need it, especially in industries such as construction, restaurant, poultry, and others that rely on the labor of undocumented immigrant workers.
RELIEF PARA EL PUEBLO :
Safety net programs such as food stamps and unemployment insurance can be as inaccessible as airline bailouts to the undocumented and poorest. Immigrant workers and families should be able to access emergency aid programs without fear of retaliation or “public charge” repercussions. Immigrant worker and community organizations should be included in planning and implementation, to ensure that this relief reaches the community.
The statement is critically important. Any kind of compassionate response, indeed, effective response, would incorporate these points. ICE enforcement activities run the risk of discouraging people from seeking medical assistance. If incarcerated, enforcement and detention run grave risks of putting people at risk of exposure. The Guardian noted earlier this week. As “Doctors are concerned the spread of coronavirus to the US’s prison-like immigration detention centers is inevitable and will hit a system blighted by overcrowding and medical negligence.” The report from the Guardian went on further:
The internal watchdog for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees CBP and Ice, warned last year of dangerous overcrowding at a border patrol processing facility, before the coronavirus outbreak. “We are concerned that overcrowding and prolonged detention represent an immediate risk to the health and safety not just of the detainees, but also DHS agents and officers,” the office of inspector general’s report said.
In December, US immigration officials blocked doctors from giving flu vaccines to detained migrant children, after at least three children in custody died from complications from the flu.
Dr Josiah Rich, an epidemiologist at Brown University, said one tool the US government has to prevent the spread of coronavirus is to release some of the 43,990 people in immigration detention, while their legal cases are being processed. People are held in these detention centers for civil immigration violations, not criminal charges, and the government can release them unless they are considered a danger to the community.
“If they don’t really need to be there, get them out of there,” Rich said. “Do we really need to expose them to additional health risks? And expose them to each other? and the staff?”
Which is to say, proceeding with business as usual on immigration enforcement not only exacerbates the injustices of the system, but increases public health risks. Yesterday, the government of Honduras decided to block deportation flights from Mexico. As of this writing, there was no decision on deportation flights from the United States. The problem, of course, is that there are very few cases of coronavirus throughout Latin America, and that exposure in and then deportation from the United States runs the risk of spreading it. The administration seems unconcerned. A jammed flight of 119 people were returned to Cuba last week.
Our immigrant enforcement system is quite simply a public health hazard at every step. On the streets enforcement is discouraging people from seeking health services. In detention, they run an even higher risk of infection and/or spreading disease. If deported, cross border transmission of disease is accelerated. It is unnecessary and unjust to treat people this way.
It is also dangerous to everyone.
So, we join in the call for a suspension of enforcement operations. Let people and their communities reset, and take care of themselves. It is ultimately better for everyone.