The Quixote Center works with, and is the fiscal sponsor in the United States for the Franciscam Network on Migration. The network coordinates the activity of shelters in Central America, Mexico and the United States that serve migrant communities – principally, though not exclusively, from Central America. Our work with the Franciscan Network has also brought us into coalition work with Franciscans International and other groups that address multilateral issues concerning migration as well. Below we offer a few updates from this work.
Assistance for shelters in Honduras
Following hurricanes Eta and Iota, which both struck Honduras (and Nicaragua) within two weeks of each other, and followed nearly identical paths, Franciscan shelters in Tegucigalpa began offering services to people who were suffering from trauma. This led to a more formal program to mobilize therapists, and therapy students from universities in the country to provide therapy services to children suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and related anxiety.
In December, the Quixote Center facilitated delivery of $4,500 to support this effort. If you would like to offer support to the Network for this and projects like it, you can do that here. Having funds available to meet critical needs is one of the key ways we can support migrants and mitigate the conditions that often give rise to migration in the first place.
The Franciscan Network is looking for volunteers to help staff shelters and other sites in Mexico (Frontera Digna in Piedras Negras and La 72 in Tenosique), Honduras (Tegucigalpa) and the United States (Migrant Center in New York City). Since Spanish is necessary for nearly all of the sites, the application form and information are only available in Spanish. For several opportunities (including NYC), room and board is not provided, so one must either be local or have access to room and board in the area.
You can find out more information, and application details here.
Mexican Franciscans offer online course on migration
The Committee on Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation of the Order of Friars Minor in Mexico is sponsoring a nine-part course on both theoretical and practical concerns related to the situation of migrants. The course will be offered entirely in Spanish on Wednesday nights from January 20-March 17, from 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET. If you are interested, more details are available here and you can register here.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement manages the largest immigration detention infrastructure in the world. Over the last year, however, the number of people being held in detention has plummeted, from 53,000 in October of 2019, to 16,075 at the beginning of December 2020. This collapse has been driven by two factors: The closure of the border under a public health order issued by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which has led to the summary expulsion of just over 330,000 people since March – some portion of these people would have been redirected to ICE custody under “normal” circumstances. The second factor is ongoing deportations, which, though slowed slightly from April to July, have never been suspended despite multiple calls from medical professionals, human rights groups and others for a moratorium on deportations until the pandemic has ended.
As a result, the number of people being held in immigrant detention right now is at the lowest level it has been since Bill Clinton was president. While ending immigrant detention is surely a complicated proposal politically speaking, logistically there may never be a better time to transition people to various alternatives to detention – programs that are already well documented to be effective and far less expensive. As COVID-19 is still ravaging detention facilities, there is also an immediate human rights imperative to get people out – one that the Trump administration has ignored. So, now is the time. Empty these facilities. Review, phase out and cancel these absurd contracts that allow private companies to profit from detention – even when the beds are empty.
If we do not change course soon, the unused capacity in the system represents a serious threat, presaging a quick return to record detention levels. The Biden team is considering ending the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Program and canceling Asylum Cooperation Agreements with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. He has not committed to ending Title 42 expulsions, but will certainly be under pressure to do so. Biden should do all of these things. However, this also means an increase in the number of people entering the country. Biden has suggested that he wants to reduce detention and rely on alternatives. However, given the political climate, the danger is that Biden’s administration will end up relying on the unused capacity in the detention system to warehouse people while his team figures out what to do with the increase in asylum seekers. Once he goes there, it will be hard to backtrack. Of course, at $3.8 million a day one could hire quite a few new asylum officers to process claims at the border, rather than lock people up. As things stand, Biden’s transition team is already looking for expanded detention capacity for unaccompanied children in the parallel, though distinct, detention program for minors run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
In considering whether or not to end immigrant detention it is worth pointing out that it has been ended before. Eisenhower shuttered immigrant detention facilities in 1954 – largely due to cost, but in doing so he also highlighted how the practice had cast the U.S. in a negative light overseas. Between 1954 and 1980 immigrant detention was used in very limited circumstances; there was no permanent detention infrastructure. Rather the government utilized space in other federal or state facilities for the handful of beds needed on any given night. All of this began to change in the early 1980s in response to a spike in immigration from the Caribbean region, especially Haiti. Unwilling to let Haitian asylum seekers into the United States, the Reagan and Bush administrations dramatically expanded the use of immigrant detention, and employed a variety of extra-territorial measures to interdict Haitians at sea, giving them cursory asylum hearings on ship before sending them back. Thanks to immigration legislation passed under Clinton’s watch, detention rates nearly tripled in 1990s – and, in the process, was made profitable for private companies. It has continued to grow ever since. Until COVID-19.
It is time to stop. We know that detention is unnecessary. It is also demonstrably managed badly when done for a profit. Detention leads to well documented cruelty (not to mention the enormous waste of funds noted above). Public health officials have repeatedly demanded massive releases during the current pandemic because of the danger to people being detained and facility staff. Alternatives work. We can get everybody out. We just need a commitment to do so.
The Quixote Center serves as the fiscal sponsor for the Franciscan Network on Migration’s fundraising activities in the United States. We participate in the Network’s discussions on advocacy and work closely with Network coordinator Lori Winther to craft strategies concerning communications about network activities. Below are updates directly from the shelters in Mexico. If you are able to support this work you can make a secure, tax- deductible donation to the Franciscan Network on Migration here.
La 72, House for Migrants Tenosique, Tabasco, Mexico
During the first months of the pandemic, La 72 had institutionalized various health and protection measures for migrants, staff and volunteers. Since mid-October, the shelter has coordinated a re-opening with certain precautionary measures to ensure the protection of the people inside.
With the collaborating organization Medicos Sin Fronteras, they have determined that they can have up to 150 people in the shelter at a time. They monitor the count of people entering (20-30 a day) and those leaving the shelter. In special cases, they receive more than the 150 limit but try to keep the number consistent.
Everyone has to wear masks, and there are new guidelines for grooming, hand washing, and the use of antibacterial gel. People who want to go out can only do so twice a week to go shopping, to eat, to the doctor, etc. Those who go to work can do it daily with permission. They check every person who passes through the gate for temperature. Any suspected cases are transferred to what is normally the juvenile module for quarantine and COVID testing. To date, they have had one verified COVID case and 3 suspected cases.
There are also 200-250 people living on the court next to the house. They do not want to enter the shelter due to movement restrictions. La 72 offers them support for their migration cases as refugees or for suffering human rights violations, etc. and 100-150 can enter to sleep in the chapel between 8:30 pm until 6:30 am.
One of the changes that has affected migration the most is that the train, sometimes called “La Bestia,” stopped operating since the end of August due to the conversion of the routes for the new tourist “Mayan Train.” People now come walking or hitchhike in cars. They have established new routes from Petén, through Salto de Agua and Palenque (there is more information in the Casa Betania report on this below). UNICEF is carrying out a study on the impact of the construction of the routes for the Mayan Train, and has interviewed local and indigenous communities, and the different houses and shelters. They are seeing a lack of respect for indigenous people as well as environmental and social impacts.
Other impediments: At the moment it is also impossible to go through Veracruz or Monterrey on foot. There are many INM (National Institute of Migration) checkpoints there and people are deported. They are not seeing many people traveling south either, because Mexico is deporting them. What you see is the perseverance and tenacity of the people. They need to migrate and the obstacles don’t matter. However, more people every day are seeing that Mexico will be their destination. They end up staying as refugees in the big cities of northern Mexico.
Casa Betania Santa Martha, Salto de Agua, Chiapas, Mexico
The parish of San Fernando de Guadalupe has been cared for by the Missionaries of the Divine Word (SVD) for 33 years. Currently, in the Casa Betania-Santa Martha Project, five SVDs of five different nationalities work alongside four Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Mary (FMM) currently from Congo, the Philippines, and Mexico. The house is in the middle of Palenque and Villahermosa; the municipal seat is Salto de Agua. Normally, the border closest to the house is called “La Técnica.” About 70% of the migrants crossed this border nearby.
Right now the train, “La Bestia”, has stopped circulating on this route, people are entering more through El Ceibo and El Naranjo. Before, people came and got on the train between these borders and Tenosique, now they have to walk the long distance between these points, and Casa Betania is on the route. As a result the shelter has experienced a huge increase in numbers. Since August it has been increasing again, and now they are receiving around 100 people a day. The majority of the population are Hondurans (85%), Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, a few Cubans and Venezuelans. Some Africans have arrived.
The pandemic caused them many challenges; they heard that many houses were closing due to the pandemic. But seeing the migrants, the faces, hearing the stories, the team decided to keep the house open. 10 or 15 people arrived a day during the first phase of the epidemic. Most are male, but a variety of groups are arriving – women, children, unaccompanied minors, whole families, single girls, etc.
People can stay for 3 days. But they always try to personalize the situation of each one, for example if they have a disease or need a procedure, they can stay longer. Right now they have a family that was robbed asking for shelter and they are also being given additional time.
The relationship between the people has been, above all, positive. At first there were comments on social networks questioning the authorities about why they kept letting the migrants stay, always blaming the migrants for any bad that happens. But there were more people supporting them. Right now there is no formal opposition blocking their passage. The health authorities set rules for them, for example, once the migrants enter the shelter, that they do not leave, that they are not entering and leaving the shelter. Migrants, above all, do not believe in COVID, or it is a denial above all the complex situation they live, their dreams, their struggles to migrate. Well, it makes them live this denial. And so there is a bit of resistance facing the requirements, the use of the mask, the hand washing, the gel. They try to disinfect cutlery, tables, surfaces very well, and there are people who do not accept the value of these measures. But it is explained to people, raising awareness, and little by little they accept that this is the new normal.
About contagion, each person who arrives takes their temperature. If they suspect a contagion, there is an area reserved for quarantine. Currently there is a person who is positive. A couple arrived, and the young man had a fever. They were immediately taken to the hospital for an exam, and the boy tested positive. The two are isolated.
One of the sisters speaks to the women about violence on the road and hospital care for migrants who have been raped on the road.
A great challenge is that in this municipality, the authorities are not very competent to help migrants. When they need paperwork, they have to move to Palenque. It implies a day of work for the transfer.
Casa Betania Needs: They critically need volunteers. With only 4 or 5 people they are serving 100+ per day. Volunteers are available to live within the limitations they have there. There is a room in the house of a woman from the town, and the women volunteers stay in this house. The men are in a space in the shelter. They have to be of legal age, willing to work with migrants, who can follow the general rules of no drugs, no alcohol, no violence.
Materially, they especially need flip-flops for the bathroom.
Comedor San Francisco de Asís Mazatlán, Mexico
In the dining room that they operated in the parish before the pandemic, they still offer showers, distribute food (water, whey, fruit, tuna, etc.) in bags, and in special cases migrants can sleep there or they can serve lunches, as before, according to the health code.
The flow of migrants is increasing again to 9 to 10 migrants per day, some to the north, others deported. Most of the migrants continue north. They are a mix of Venezuelans and Central Americans, but very few Haitians and others at this time. They still cannot fully open with volunteers, for the safety of the volunteers.
The migrants stay under a bridge near the train tracks. Or they just eat, bathe, and leave. The INM sometimes asks for support from the parish or the DIF (National System for Integral Family Development), for people with physical disabilities, etc.
Pre-pandemic, a woman in the community offered to donate a house to better host the migrants. However, the house is not suitable for the men who make up the majority of the migrants who pass this route. The house is far from the parish and would be without an administrator on-site. There is not much space and everyone would be too crowded. There is no patio, it is completely enclosed. Sometimes there are arguments or problems. There is a lot of drug trafficking in the area, too, and they don’t have room for movement. People cannot be easily separated when tensions arise.
For these reasons, the friars plan to use the house to serve families or perhaps women, perhaps for two or three families at a time. Maybe use the house for medical care. In terms of legal paperwork, they already have right of use, but are awaiting deeds.
In other space, they plan to separate a section of the patio of their church, mainly to provide shade with a canopy (tin) roof and a large tree. There they could place cots, hammocks or mats for the men to sleep. There are two gates to the street. With a wall they will divide the areas between the parishioners and the migrants. This would give them more space for the migrants to relax and as Franciscans already live here, they would also be better supervised and supported.
They are presenting this plan for approval to their provincial government of the Franciscans at a meeting in Tijuana this month. If the plan is approved, a plan that involves blocking part of the entrance to the sanctuary from their worship space, they would need money to make these more basic plans. It would be better than what they have had, but not as good as what was originally proposed. The opportunity to buy the land where they hoped to build is no longer available.
The funds they obtained from the Central Mission of the Franciscans in Germany have been spent to cover food costs in recent months and they are running out of supplies. They are thinking of initiating a local campaign to collect more supplies.
Frontera Digna Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico
The Frontera Digna shelter is an institution that welcomes vulnerable migrants, refugees, and deportees. Due to the insecure situations that migrants experience, they arrive with an immense burden of incidents and cruelty that they have had to experience on the road and this shelter offers them relief: water so they can bathe, food, clothing, medicine. They receive spiritual support and care, nutritional assistance, and other accompaniment when required. We respond to the situations that each of them have, maintaining hope and strengthening.
In early 2020, staff at Frontera Digna were preparing a new “Compartiendo Esperanza” shelter exclusively for up to 80 women and children. In April, immigration authorities requested the use of the new shelter for 160 people in deportation proceedings from Mexico. You can read more about what happened here.
As we are very close to the border, people sometimes try to cross several times. There are helicopters, drones, dogs, sensors that detect movements, migrants even believe that when they turn on their phone, the sensors can detect them. However, they can cross and walk 3-6 days until the North American migration authorities capture and detain them, sometimes until they have lost everything along the way. We always hear, “I almost made it.” They try many times.
When they arrive with us, the deportees ask for food, clothes (sometimes they arrive in their prison suit or pajamas, flip flops). They ask to bathe and come very hungry. Sometimes they arrive dehydrated, in poor health, with traumas related to encounters with criminals, kidnappings, extortion, etc.
Temporarily closed for lodging, Frontera Digna served an average of 100 migrants every day before the COVID pandemic. Currently, they are providing pantry service, food and cleaning products and soaps, and follow up with pregnant women who are living in rented rooms. They also offered migrants the right to enter, rest a few hours and shower, but the municipality ordered them to only distribute food, bring clothes to wash, prohibiting others from entering the shelter.
There are migrants who are waiting for their asylum appointments in Nuevo Laredo, and many are arriving in Piedras Negras. They rent tiny rooms, now that the shelters are closed due to COVID. The person in charge of the INM who keeps the list to request asylum, reports that in the Piedras Negras detention center, around 160 deportees, are processed daily.
About the rented rooms, the police recently raided some buildings because the owners did not have the proper permits. The migrants were taken to detention even though some were awaiting asylum and had legal status in Mexico. They deported those who did not have papers to stay. They are constantly deporting people.
For years U.S. border policy has focused on one overarching strategy, with many different tactics: Deterrence. The idea behind deterrence is that if the consequences of unauthorized migration can be made punitive enough, people will stop trying. It doesn’t work. It has never worked. For example, in the late 1990’s, as part of the Clinton administration’s “prevention through deterrence” approach, border walls were built through urban areas along the U.S./Mexico border in order to drive people trying to cross the border into the desert. The policies did not stop migration, but thousands of people have died in those deserts as a result:
Experts can only guess at the true number of lives lost over the last two decades. At a minimum, more than 7,000 people have perished, though the true total is guaranteed to be higher. During the 1990s, the Office of the Pima County Medical Examiner dealt with an average of 12 migrant deaths annually. Over an 18-year period beginning in 2000, once prevention through deterrence was humming along, that number rose to 155 per year. According to the medical examiner’s office, 2,943 sets of human remains have been found in southern Arizona from 2000 to the present.
Writing in January of 2017, just before Trump took office, the Women’s Refugee Council, KIND and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services issued the report, Betraying Family Valuesin which they documented that,
As a matter of procedure and policy, border agents routinely separate family members, including intentionally, as a punishment – or “consequences- through what DHS calls its Consequence Delivery System (CDS). The consequences are meant to deter future migration, often regardless of international protection or other humanitarian concerns.
‘CDS’ was implemented in 2005, and employed by both the Bush and Obama administrations. For example,
As families fleeing violence in Central America began making headlines in 2014, the Obama Administration implemented an aggressive deterrence policy designed to stop families from seeking protection in the United States. The Administration prioritized all recent border crossers as enforcement priorities and vastly increased the use of expedited removal and detention of mothers arriving with children.
None of this worked – but it did establish precedents for Trump to use and abuse. Yet, even as Trump has elevated the consequences severely, people have kept coming. Indeed, the highest spike in Border apprehensions in over a decade came in the year AFTER the child separation fiasco ushered in by Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, and after the administration’s decision to detain nearly all asylum seekers. Last fiscal year (2019) the number of border patrol apprehensions reached 859,501, more than double the year before (404,142), and almost triple Trump’s first year in office (310,531). The crisis at the border throughout the spring and summer of 2019 was very real of course, but it was driven by Trump’s failed policy agenda, not asylum seekers.
The utter failure of Trump’s deterrence policies, however, have only led the administration to try even more punitive measures. Asylum seekers are no longer even admitted into the United States until after hearings before an immigration judge. 60,000+ people have been redirected to Mexico to await these hearings since January of 2019. When the hearings finally started last summer they were a fiasco. Only 1% of those who have received a hearing were granted asylum. When the COVID pandemic was declared, there were still 25,000 or more people along the U.S./Mexico border living in camps, or scraping by on the streets of Mexican border towns, waiting. Since March, the hearings have been suspended, and the border itself closed under an order by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This order, dubious in origin, has led to the summary expulsion of close to 200,000 people. As a result of forcing people into crowded conditions to wait out the pandemic, the effect of the order has been to create a public health crisis on the border – not prevent one.
And yet, people are still coming. Despite all of the above, there were more Border Patrol apprehensions in September of 2020 than September of last year, and the number is only increasing. Why?
People end up at our borders from all over the world. Many are fleeing violent conflicts and the collapse of livelihoods from a variety of environmental and economic factors. Those from Central America, which make up the largest portion of asylum claims, are fleeing well documented violence at the hands of gangs, the state, or partners. Doctors Without Border issued a study just before the pandemic, based on 480 interviews and 26,000 medical records, showing that 45.7% of the people from Central America migrating through Mexico were fleeing violence – 75% of families. In one of the few empirical studies disagregating various causal factors behind migration, the Center for Global Development (2017) showed that there was a direct relationship between the murder rate in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras and youth migration to the United States, irrespective of U.S. border policy, which made no significant difference in the decision to migrate. The study shows that from 2011 to 2016, “the violence-migration relationship was driven by events in the region and was unaffected by changes in U.S. immigration policy during the period.”
The impacts of climate change, in the form of drought, coffee rust, and food insecurity is probably the single biggest push factor behind migration in recent years, though it can be hard to separate climate impacts from the violence that grows out of the resulting scarcity. Even Customs and Border Patrol documented crop loss as a primary reason for migration – a finding ignored by the Trump administration, which actually cut assistance to mitigate crop loss in the region among other cuts in aid; cuts made as a punishment for countries’ in Central America not doing enough (in Trump’s mind) to stop migration!(?)
The impact of COVID-19.
The last six months have only deepened the crises in Central America. Economic growth has collapsed, driving even more people into poverty. Prior to COVID-19, Latin American economies were projected to grow about 1.9% this year. In September of 2020 the International Monetary Fund revised its estimate, anticipating a regional contraction of 9.4% – a negative swing of 11.3%. Mexico is among the hardest hit economies, expected to contract by over 10% this year.
Gang violence has seen a slight reduction in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, largely due to the curfews in force in all three countries. Nevertheless, the rate of killing is on the upswing as the curfews end. Honduras and Guatemala each saw just under 2,000 murders this year by the end of August. Mexico is still home to half of all the active gangs in Latin America and half of the related deaths. Gender based violence has increased in Central America during the pandemic, as it has elsewhere. In Honduras 45 women had been killed in domestic disputes by the end of May. Reports of gender based violence were up 70% in El Salvador and 65% in Mexico. State violence also increased across the region as governments sought to enforce draconian lockdowns measures with force. Honduras used the pretense of enforcing its lockdown to arrest dozens of opposition political activists.
Finally, as countries from the U.S. to Panama closed their borders in the spring, migrants already on the journey from Haiti, Cameroon, Pakistan, India, Cuba, Venezuela and elsewhere, were detained throughout Central America. These people are attempting to continue their journeys now – at least those able to. Many are now arriving at the U.S./Mexico border. During the first two weeks of October, Border Patrol arrested 1,800 people from 26 different countries in the Del Rio sector in Texas. One fourth (450) were from Haiti. Almost all were flown out over the space of a week, with no chance to apply for asylum.
The lesson here is that even with the border closed, and asylum off the table, people are still coming. And the numbers will only increase in the coming months. Deterrence has not worked. It will not work as long as economies weaken, climate change destroys livelihoods and violence leaves people with no other choice but to migrate. Indeed, for the foreseeable future, forced, survival migration will remain the norm with peaks and valleys in the movement of people, but it won’t end. Not with a wall, moat, machine gun turrets, lasers and drones. It is beyond time to acknowledge the global crises underlying displacement and stop acting like the resulting migration is something being done to us.
So, another four years of Trumpian antics won’t work. And a return to the Obama standard of massive deportations, high tech border toys and “consequence delivery systems” won’t either. What might? Well, it has already been shown that dollar for dollar, spending money on violence prevention programs targeting youth in Central America is far more effective at reducing migration than expanding the Border Patrol or changing asylum rules. Helping people mitigate the immediate impacts of climate change will do more to reduce refugee flows than 100 or 500 more miles of border wall. More importantly what these measures signify is an important truth: Treating all people with dignity is actually a better way to get results. We are all in this together, after all. Better we start acting like it.
Three weeks ago Dawn Wooten, formerly a nurse at Irwin County Detention Center, came forward with accusations that a doctor had performed medically unnecessary hysterectomies on many women who were at the Irwin Center under the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Irwin is run by a private, for-profit company, LaSalle Corrections. From a story in Vice, “In interviews with Project South, a Georgia nonprofit, multiple women said that hysterectomies were stunningly frequent among immigrants detained at the facility. ‘When I met all these women who had had surgeries, I thought this was like an experimental concentration camp,’ said one woman, who said she’d met five women who’d had hysterectomies after being detained between October and December 2019. The woman said that immigrants at Irwin are often sent to see one particular gynecologist outside of the facility. ‘It was like they’re experimenting with their bodies.’”The Associated Press did a follow up investigation after these reports surfaced. They were not able to confirm all of Dawn Wooten’s accusations, but did find a pattern of issues including a lack of consent for surgeries and medical procedures performed by Dr. Mahendra Amin:An Associated Press review of medical records for four women and interviews with lawyers revealed growing allegations that Amin performed surgeries and other procedures on detained immigrants that they never sought or didn’t fully understand. Although some procedures could be justified based on problems documented in the records, the women’s lack of consent or knowledge raises severe legal and ethical issues, lawyers and medical experts said.Pramila Jayapal, Representative from Seattle, led a letter to the Department of Homeland Security signed by 170 members of Congress that demanded an investigation into these reports. In covering this story, The Guardianrecalled the history of forced sterilizations in the United States – something that is not exactly ancient history. “In the 1960s and 70s an increase in federal funding for reproductive health procedures combined with racist and anti-immigration sentiment led to “tens of thousands” of women of colour being sterilized, including Native Americans…And by the 1970s, a third of all women in Puerto Rico had undergone sterilization procedures, the majority of which were involuntary, as part of US attempts at ‘population control’….In California prisons, between 1997 and 2013 about 1,400 people were sterilized.”Alexandra Minna Stern, professor of history at the University of Michigan and director of the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab told The Guardian, “Anyone who’s studied the history of sterilization abuse would look at this detention center and say this is the kind of place where sterilization abuse is likely to occur because all of the conditions that enable such medical malfeasance and reproductive oppression, they’re all in place.”The allegations have brought all eyes onto the Irwin County Detention Center and LaSalle Corrections. However, the issue of medical neglect in ICE custody is a systemic issue. Two weeks ago two different House committee reports on ICE detention practices made this point. Both reports included damning evidence of a history of neglect and malpractice. The first report came from the House Committee on Homeland Security. Noting that “ICE appears to prioritize obtaining bed space over the wellbeing of detainees in its custody”, the Committee “discovered a concerning pattern of ICE contracting with facilities that are poorly equipped to meet ICE’s own detention standards. This includes facilities, particularly in Louisiana [home of LaSalle Corrections], that had a well-publicized history of abuses prior to contracting with ICE. It also includes those facilities that have had longstanding contracts with ICE but have demonstrated an inability to comply with standards that affect the health and safety of detainees even after being repeatedly called out for violating those standards by DHS’s own inspection processes.”The primary findings of the committee was that ICE’s oversight of private contractors was inadequate. Oversight was poorly conceived, advance warning was given of inspections, the contractors hired to do inspections were ill prepared, problems, when found, went uncorrected and contracts continued to be extended regardless of patterns of abuse. On medical neglect in particular, The Committee repeatedly heard from detainees that their medical complaints were frequently dismissed. The most common complaint was that, whatever the issue, detainees would be given common pain relievers unless the symptoms were emergent. At LaSalle, migrants described a system that depended on non-medically trained people to make health care decisions. For example, if a person was experiencing pain, the guard in the housing unit might tell them to wait to go to the doctor until the morning. Even if they made it to see health professionals, migrants at LaSalle described medical personnel making fun of their complaints. Migrants held at Otay Mesa also recalled being told to prioritize “one problem at a time” and not raise multiple concerns when visiting health professional. And they had to wait days for a trip to the hospital for treatment or examinations. Sixty Migrants at Adelanto similarly complained about having to wait months to receive medical care for medical issues. The second report came from the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. This report contained more recent developments, particularly regarding ICE’s medical neglect as it applies to COVID-19 prevention. The findings, however, were largely the same. ICE facilities fail to provide adequate medical services, and yet ICE continues to contract with the same companies. Commenting on a review of audits of detainee deaths, the Committee notes, “[t]hese documents reveal serious and widespread violations of ICE’s health and safety standards, negligent medical care, unsanitary living conditions, understaffing, poor record keeping, and critically delayed emergency care.” In relation to infectious diseases, the track record is truly damning: For example, in 2018 and 2019, an outbreak of the mumps infected nearly 900 detainees in 57 ICE detention facilities across 19 states. Documents also contain examples of improper treatment for tuberculosis, HIV, and in one case, an allegation of “grossly negligent” medical care when an ICE detainee died of meningitis in 2018.These persistent deficiencies could aggravate the spread of coronavirus in DHS facilities. ICE has confirmed more than 6,000 detainees and 45 ICE staff have been infected with coronavirus at over 95 detention facilities. Information obtained by the Committee shows that as of mid-July 2020, more than 600 GEO Group and CoreCivic employees working in at least 29 facilities also tested positive.Many ICE facilities, including those that house children, have had repeated sanitation problems, including dirty and moldy bathrooms, insufficient clean clothing, unsanitized dishes, dirty food preparation and service areas, and a lack of soap, toilet paper, paper towels, clean razors, and other hygiene items. During fiscal year 2020, twenty-one people have died in ICE custody. Eight of the eleven people who have died since May have died of COVID-19.Now what?So, over the last two weeks we’ve witnessed a damning whistleblower report on an ICE facility, alongside several follow up investigations supporting parts of this report, while exposing even more abuses. We’ve also seen two congressional committee reports that detail repeatedly how ICE is negligent in the care it provides. Further, the negligence in medical care has led to deaths, and the explosion of COVID-19 in its facilities. The reports this last week note that ICE private contractors are not held accountable. Indeed, the oversight regime in place now is a complete failure. I have no idea what it will take to move members of Congress to actually act. There is a bill circulating in the House, unlikely to make it out of committee within the time span left to this Congress. The Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act. The bill calls for minimizing the use of detention overall, phasing out of the use of contractors (private and governmental) in order to keep all detention facilities under one clear authority that is then tightly monitored based on a comprehensive set of standards. It was introduced last year. If not this bill, then something at least as comprehensive must be moved in the next Congress. This is not something that really needs to be studied any more. Detention is unnecessary, and private detention facilities are brutal. Period. We have known this for years. Enough is enough.
On March 19 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an order that blocked people from coming across the border. Under Title 42 of the Public Health Services Act border agents have been empowered to expel people as soon as they are encountered, with no access to traditional due process, and thus no ability to pursue asylum claims. The order has also been deployed to deny unaccompanied children access to asylum claims and other basic support. The result of this order is the expulsion of 154,000 people between March 19 and the end of August; 8,800 of them unaccompanied children. The vast majority of people are expelled back to Mexico, though people who are not from Mexico or Central America are sent elsewhere – presumably their home country, but there is little actually known about these folks. Some children, and families, mostly from Haiti, were found to have been put into hotels in Texas and Arizona until they could be removed. People detained, however briefly, under Title 42 are not given alien ID numbers (“A” numbers) that would allow them to be tracked while in detention. In effect, they disappear into the system until they can be removed. Family members are unable to find them, and they have no access to attorneys.
The impacts of Title 42 expulsions have rippled out in all directions from the border. In Mexico it has meant further crowding at the border among those trying to wait out the current crisis and continue their efforts to pursue asylum or other relief in the United States. Others have been forced back through Mexico to the border with Guatemala. Since March, they have been forced to wait until that border re-opens (it has in the last two weeks). Along the way, migrants look for places to stay in shelters that dot the landscape in Mexico. Staff with our partners in the Franciscan Network on Migration, for example, have noted there are more people traveling south these days than north.
Within the United States, Title 42 expulsions have led to a dramatic decline in detentions – as people apprehended at the border are now being expelled rather than transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be held while awaiting processing of their immigration status and/or asylum claims. Fewer people in ICE detention is a good thing, but the underlying reasons are not good – as people are in effect still being detained (halted from moving forward), but removed from oversight. Conditions within ICE detention facilities remain abysmal despite the lower numbers. Fiscal Year 2020 just ended, and during that year twenty-one people died while in ICE custody, the most in over 15 years. So, one of the chief stated purposes of Title 42 expulsions – to enhance safety for detention staff and detainees already in the United States, is patently false.
For those of us working on immigration policy, Title 42 was never a “good idea” simply administered badly. From the beginning it was clearly an effort to weaponize the COVID-19 response to do what the Trump team had otherwise been denied doing by the courts: Kill the asylum process and otherwise close the border to immigrants. It is also, one hopes this is because it is poorly understood, a popular policy, with a majority of U.S. Americans supporting it. That support has raised questions about whether Biden would actually suspend the order should he win the election. Given recent disclosures he absolutely must suspend the order.
Why? If one had any doubts about the duplicitous rationale behind Title 42 expulsions, news came this weekend that the CDC had originally refused to issue the order because there was no public health reason to do so. In fact, the order did not originate with the CDC at all. Rather, it was Trump advisor Stephen Miller’s brainchild. From the Associated Press:
“That was a Stephen Miller special. He was all over that,” said Olivia Troye, a former top aide to Pence, who coordinated the White House coronavirus task force. She recently resigned in protest, saying the administration had placed politics above public health. “There was a lot of pressure on DHS and CDC to push this forward.”
CDC doctors resisted implementing it for weeks because it would do no good in slowing the spread of coronavirus. Eventually Vice-President Pence was brought in to get it done. He called the CDC and told them to issue the order, “or else.” [“They forced us,” said a former health official involved in the process. “It is either do it or get fired” in AP report] The order was issued the next day.
“The decision to halt asylum processes ‘to protect the public health’ is not based on evidence or science,” wrote Dr. Anthony So, an international public health expert at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in a letter to Redfield in April. “This order directly endangers tens of thousands of lives and threatens to amplify dangerous anti-immigrant sentiment and xenophobia.”
The order was initially supposed to last for one month as an emergency measure – but that was a lie as well. Indeed, Miller made clear immediately upon implementation that he viewed this as a long-term approach.
Of course, amplifying dangerous anti-immigrant sentiment and xenophobia is precisely the point. It’s an election year after all. Calling the current administration out on its hypocrisy and lies seems almost pointless at this stage. But we take note in the hope that one day, perhaps, there will be some accountability. Shuttering the border and denying people legislatively guaranteed protections based on false pretenses has to be illegal….right? We’ll see.
Currently the number of people being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement is just over 20,000. This number has fallen off dramatically from the all time high of over 55,000 registered last August (2019). At the beginning of the current fiscal year (Oct 1, 2019) there were still over 53,000 people being held. Which means that over the last 12 months there has been a 62% fall off in the number of people in ICE detention.
ICE contracts with 175 different facilities around the country to hold people. Many of these facilities are run by county sheriffs or state departments of corrections. However, the larger facilities, which in total hold close to 75% of the people in detention, are run by private companies, the largest are CoreCivic and the GEO Group, followed by LaSalle Corrections.
With a collapse of nearly 62% of the number of people being held, you’d expect these companies to really be hurting. But they are not. The reason they are not on the verge of collapse is because the contracts for managing most of these facilities guarantee payment for a minimum number of beds, whether those beds are occupied or not. Indeed, across the 44 private facilities that have a guaranteed daily minimum, the total number of people they are guaranteed to get paid for is 30,242. (See full ICE stats YTD here)
In those same facilities, the average daily population for the whole year was just 22,006 – or 8,236 a day below the guaranteed minimum. So, over the course of this year, which ends on September 30, the federal government has paid for an equivalent of 3,014,376 days of detention for empty beds (remember it was a leap year!). The actual amount that companies get paid for beds per day in individual contracts is not public. However, the funding enacted for ICE detention in FY2020 was $3.1 billion, based on an anticipated daily average of 50,126 beds, or an average cost of $168.97 per bed per day. This means that, based on the average daily bed costs in the budget enacted this year, ICE may have paid as much as $509,339,113 for empty beds in FY2020.
Daily averages for the year aside, it is worth pointing out that at this moment there are 20,000 people in detention in the entirety of ICE’s network. And the companies housing three fourths of them are still getting paid for 30,242 people a day. (To be clear, we are not advocating ICE fill those beds.)
With all of the extra money, you’d think services would have improved. But no. Health services remain abysmal – and even in the midst of a global pandemic, ICE contractors cannot be bothered to provide adequate services for people in detention – or for their own staff. Indeed, the companies are cutting staffing levels and services given the lower overall numbers, not providing better services.
For CoreCivic’s part, revenue in the second quarter of 2020, the peak time of the COVID-19 crisis, and the lowest detention rates in 20 years, was still $471 million. This, they note, was down just 3.6% from the first quarter (which puts revenue for the first half of 2020 near $1 billion). On an investor call in August, company leadership made clear that the guaranteed minimums have insulated the company somewhat from the overall decline in ICE detention. Asked if ICE or the US Marshal service was trying to renegotiate the minimums at this time, Damon Hininger, CoreCivic’s President and CEO, responded, “No. So it is the contrary.” He then noted the recent 10-year extension for their contract at the T Don Hutto detention facility in Texas, and the expectation of a 10-year extension for their contract at the Houston Processing Center – the oldest private detention facility in the country – as evidence of ICE’s commitment to maintain “detention capacity.”
The GEO Group had revenue of $588 million during the second quarter of this year. On a recent investor call, company directors also discussed the decline in ICE detention but noted that “most of our GEO Secure Services contracts contain fixed price or minimum guaranteed payment provisions.” For both GEO and CoreCivic, the guaranteed minimums are crucially important for cash flow and “investor confidence.” The GEO Group was also able to celebrate another 10-year deal for an ICE facility in southern Texas. ICE seems hell bent on protecting both of these companies from lost revenue.
As I’ve written before, the reason detention numbers are so low is that the Trump administration has effectively closed the border – summarily expelling 175,000 people since March 19, 2020, many of whom would have otherwise been transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s detention network. Stephen Miller wants to keep the border closed indefinitely. The GEO Group and CoreCivic do not. So, while the first three years of Trump’s presidency were sort of a bonanza for these companies, the last year has been a struggle (in the way that a 3.6% decline in revenue for companies that make billions off incarcerating people is a “struggle”). Oddly enough, what this means is that a Biden victory is probably better for them in the short term, as Biden has indicated he will overturn the order that closed the border. Of course, prior to Trump taking office, Biden was part of the administration that set the previous record for detention rates, with a daily average of over 38,000 people in 2016. That administration also signed many of the sweetheart contracts with daily minimums that are keeping these companies afloat today. Capitalism surely makes for strange bedfellows, even when most of the beds are empty.
Every once in a while I wonder if this administration has hit the bottom in its maltreatment of people who are seeking a new life in the United States. Family separation? Can’t go much lower than that, right? A few months later Trump is forcing refugees into camps in Mexico, where they become targets of gangs, to await an opportunity to make asylum requests? This must be it. I mean come on! Then the administration is expelling unaccompanied children and others with no due process of any kind under the guise of a public health response to COVID 19. 90% of these people, the administration proudly claims, are expelled within 2 hours of being encountered. For those not expelled immediately, things aren’t great. As you’ve read, some of the kids are held in hotels, out of the reach of attorneys who might support them. Absolutely horrifying, right? Yeah, but then….
The news this week sinks the administration’s practices to a whole other ring of hell. I hesitate to say it can’t get much worse….
First came the news that the Trump administration transferred people from detention sites with high rates of coronavirus infections to sites in Virginia simply because it wanted to fly federal agents to D.C. to monitor Black Lives Matter protests. Yes, the administration wanted to fly in extra agents, and federal procurement laws do not allow them to use charter planes. So, the work around this policy was to have the agents “accompany” people being transferred between ICE facilities – even if there was no other reason to transfer them.
The result of this experiment in absolute carelessness was a massive outbreak at the ICE detention facility in Farmville, Virginia, where basically everyone at one point was testing positive for coronavirus. From the Washington Post:
The Trump administration flew immigrant detainees to Virginia this summer to facilitate the rapid deployment of Homeland Security tactical teams to quell protests in Washington, circumventing restrictions on the use of charter flights for employee travel, according to a current and a former U.S. official.
After the transfer, dozens of the new arrivals tested positive for the novel coronavirus, fueling an outbreak at the Farmville, Va., immigration jail that infected more than 300 inmates, one of whom died.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the agency moved the detainees on “ICE Air” charter flights to avoid overcrowding at detention facilities in Arizona and Florida, a precaution they said was taken because of the pandemic.
But a Department of Homeland Security official with direct knowledge of the operation, and a former ICE official who learned about it from other personnel, said the primary reason for the June 2 transfers was to skirt rules that bar ICE employees from traveling on the charter flights unless detainees are also aboard.
This news was followed by a whistleblower’s report about medical neglect at an ICE facility in Irwin, Georgia, operated by LaSalle South Corrections. The failure to take appropriate precautions against coronavirus was bad enough – a problem well documented in many facilities in ICE’s network. However, the real shocker in the report was testimony that a large number of women had received medically unnecessary hysterectomies while in custody. I mean….
The complaint, filed on behalf of several detained immigrants and a nurse named Dawn Wooten, details several accounts of recent “jarring medical neglect” at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, which is run by the private prison company LaSalle South Corrections and houses people incarcerated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In interviews with Project South, a Georgia nonprofit, multiple women said that hysterectomies were stunningly frequent among immigrants detained at the facility.
“When I met all these women who had had surgeries, I thought this was like an experimental concentration camp,” said one woman, who said she’d met five women who’d had hysterectomies after being detained between October and December 2019. The woman said that immigrants at Irwin are often sent to see one particular gynecologist outside of the facility. “It was like they’re experimenting with their bodies.”
In one case, Wooten said, a woman who ended up with a hysterectomy was not properly anesthetized and overhead the doctor say that he’d taken out the wrong ovary. That woman had to go back and get her other ovary removed as well, Wooten said.
The Associated Press did a follow up investigation after these reports surfaced. They were not able to confirm Dawn Wooten’s accusations, but did find a pattern of issues concerning lack of consent concerning surgeries and medical procedures performed by Dr. Mahendra Amin:
An Associated Press review of medical records for four women and interviews with lawyers revealed growing allegations that Amin performed surgeries and other procedures on detained immigrants that they never sought or didn’t fully understand. Although some procedures could be justified based on problems documented in the records, the women’s lack of consent or knowledge raises severe legal and ethical issues, lawyers and medical experts said.
Receiving less attention is a lawsuit involving another whistle-blower, Brian Murphy, who detailed a number of incidences of administration officials intentionally lying to Congress. The whistle-blower knows this because he is an intelligence official who briefed Kristin Nielsen and others on the content of their congressional testimony, only to have corrections ignored because they did not fit the narrative. A particularly damning part of the legal brief is Murphy’s contention that he was ordered to seek out and fire “deep state” intelligence analysts by Cucinelli, because depictions of conditions in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador were making it too easy for people to get asylum! Yeah. From the brief…
Mr. Murphy made a protected disclosure to Mr. Glawe in December 2019, regarding an attempted abuse of authority and improper administration of an intelligence program by Mr. Cuccinelli. In December 2019, Mr. Murphy attended a meeting with Messrs. Cuccinelli and Glawe to discuss intelligence reports regarding conditions in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The intelligence reports were designed to help asylum officers render better determinations regarding their legal standards. Mr. Murphy’s team at DHS I&A completed the intelligence reports and he presented them to Mr. Cuccinelli in the meeting. Mr. Murphy defended the work in the reports, but Mr. Cuccinelli stated he wanted changes to the information outlining high levels of corruption, violence, and poor economic conditions in the three respective countries. Mr. Cuccinelli expressed frustration with the intelligence reports, and he accused unknown “deep state intelligence analysts” of compiling the intelligence information to undermine President Donald J. Trump’s (“President Trump”) policy objectives with respect to asylum. Notwithstanding Mr. Murphy’s response that the intelligence reports’ assessments were consistent with past assessments made for several years, Mr. Cuccinelli ordered Messrs. Murphy and Glawe to identify the names of the “deep state” individuals who compiled the intelligence reports and to either fire or reassign them immediately.
After the meeting, Mr. Murphy informed Mr. Glawe that Mr. Cuccinelli’s instructions were illegal, as well as constituted an abuse of authority and improper administration of an intelligence program. Mr. Murphy also informed Mr. Glawe he would not comply with the instruction to fire or reassign the alleged “deep state” officials based on nothing more than perceived political differences, and that Mr. Murphy would report the matter to DHS OIG if 10 improper actions were taken to do so. Mr. Glawe concurred with Mr. Murphy’s assessment and Mr. Cuccinelli’s instructions were never implemented.
Of course, if one was going to round out the bad news this week, you’d have to include the 9th Circuit Court’s decision to green light Trump’s efforts to dismantle Temporary Protected Status for people from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Haiti and Sudan. The ruling likely also impacts TPS for Honduras. If there is an upside at all it is that implementation will be pushed back past the election. So, the final determination of TPS’ future will be decided as a result of the presidential election. Should he win, Biden has stated his commitment to reinstate TPS for these countries (no guarantee). Another upside, is that for people from Haiti, this ruling will in essence be set aside pending the outcome of a separate case also before the courts (Sagetv Trump), and thus the validity of current TPS holder work permits for people from Haiti will almost certainly be extended to September 2021 – no matter what happens in November of this year.
Stretch and Bobbito are renowned DJs and their debut album No Requests came out early this year. One track, The Mexican, is a reimagining of the British band Babe Ruth’s song from 1973. Partnering with Mariachi singer Mireya Ramos, the songs’ lyrics have been updated to reflect the times. Referencing Trump’s border all, one line says “Wall so high from the outside/Makes it hard to Dream.” Bobbito explains that “with the video we advocated for immigration rights and opened up a curtain for the experiences of asylum seekers.”
Enjoy the song and video here:
Check out an interview with Stretch and Bobbito on NPR here
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.