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


On July 22, a federal court in Canada declared that sending refugees back to the United States violates those refugees’ fundamental rights: “The Court found that sending refugee claimants back to the U.S. violates their Charter right to liberty and security of the person because many of them are arbitrarily detained in the US in immigration detention centres or county jails, often in atrocious conditions and in clear contravention of international standards.”

At stake in this ruling was a “safe third country” agreement between the United States and Canada, through which people entering Canada from the United States seeking asylum could be sent back to the United States as a “safe-third country.” The court declared that the United States was not, in fact, safe; and thus sending refugees back to the United States violated their rights. Canada’s government has 6-months to withdraw from the agreement with the United States. 

It is not really news that the United States has become a country unsafe for immigrants, particularly those who end up in immigration detention centers. But it is definitely newsworthy that a Canadian court has spoken out. Will it matter in the long run?

The problems with these facilities have been well documented for years. They include the abuse of solitary confinement, often employed as punishment, including for periods extending past the three-day limit, beyond which the tactic has been declared a form of torture. People in detention have insufficient access to medical services, including mental health services. Such services are almost uniformly supplied through private contractors who have been repeatedly shown to be more concerned with the bottom line than providing adequate care. Facilities are unsanitary, often overcrowded, and thus, at high risk for the rapid transmission of communicable diseases. Beyond these conditions, which are consistent with those found throughout the United States’ carceral network of jails and prisons, is the simple fact that detention is an unnecessary, and typically arbitrary response to people who have, in most cases, violated no law. Seeking asylum, for example, is legal no matter how one arrives within the country. 

The United States’ response to COVID-19 has only magnified these long-observed, structural deficiencies. Within Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s network of detention facilities, there has been little change in operations since the pandemic was declared. People are routinely transferred between facilities – a primary means of spreading the disease. Within facilities, overcrowding and inadequate sanitation remain a serious problem, and poor quality healthcare is an obvious hurdle to treatment. That ICE has simply continued with the same standards of “care” is not surprising, however, the result is a pandemic within ICE detention facilities. 

According to official numbers, as of July 28 (they change daily), 3,868 people have tested positive for COVID-19 since February. Of these, 963 people are still in custody. The number of people currently in detention facilities is 22,067. That is an infection rate of 4.4%. However, a majority of people currently in custody have not been tested. More than 68,000 have been “booked-in” to an ICE facility since February – and at the beginning of February there were nearly 40,000 people already in custody. So, of the 100,000 people that have cycled in and out of these facilities since February, only 19,092 have been tested. Which is to say, an overall 4.4% infection rate among current detainees is incredibly high, and yet, certainly a serious undercount.

Of course, the distribution of COVID-19 is not even. There are facilities that are at crisis levels of infection. The worst is Farmville in Virginia, where 80% of the people being held have tested positive for COVID-19. Four people currently being held have sued ICE and the detention facility itself, noting

“[H]arrowing conditions inside the detention center, with large numbers of people exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 yet not being provided the most basic medical care. The plaintiffs have also been served expired, uncooked, or undercooked food and food infested with bugs. They claim that ICE and ICA-Farmville’s actions not only violate the Consttution but also violate ICE’s own standards for providing medical treatment and food services to detained people.” 

To be clear, this is no act of nature beyond the control of authorities. “ICE transferred 74 people, 51 of whom had COVID-19, from facilities with known COVID-19 cases in Arizona and Florida into ICA-Farmville in June.” ICE’s carelessness is putting the lives of the people in Farmville at risk.

ICE’s lax standards have also impacted staff. At the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, 128 people, or 41% of the total staff at the facility, tested positive three weeks ago. ICE doesn’t even report staff’s infections anymore on their website (there is a number [45] but it has not changed in weeks) and when they report, it is only ICE in-house staff – not private contractors working for ICE such as the people at Eloy. 

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

Families and children held in ICE custody are also in crisis. COVID-19 is present in the two main ICE family detention facilities, Dilley and Karnes, both in Texas. A federal judge ordered ICE to release all of the children in its custody. However, the judge had no authority over the parents. ICE is refusing to release the parents and the parents have refused to be separated from the children. As a result, the judge was forced to declare the previous ruling unenforceable on Monday. The Trump administration is also engaged in summary expulsions at the U.S./Mexico border – over 69,000 people have been expelled since mid-March! This includes children and families, some of whom have been hidden away in hotels until they can be deported, and thus denied access to any due process. 

Let’s face it, as the ruling in Canada underscores, the United States is a rogue state. While many other countries are engaged in various abuses against migrants, the United States really does stand out as exceptional, with the largest detention infrastructure in the world and a series of policies that have decimated the asylum process and destroyed tens of thousands of lives in the process. What to do about this? Join with us and other members of the Detention Watch Network in creating a resounding call to free everyone in detention – for public health and humanitarian reasons. On the legislative side, join us in calling on members of Congress to vote for the Immigration Enforcement Moratorium Act. Together we can continue to organize a voice of moral opposition to violent detention practices and save lives in the process. 

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Taste The Nation

Taste the Nation, a new series on the streaming network Hulu, is hosted and produced by Padma Lakshmi, best known as the host of Top Chef. An immigrant herself, Padma wanted to research immigration in the US in the wake of Trump’s election and the US’s latest anti-immigrant wave. Recognizing the power of food, she chose it as the lens to frame the topic. Through 10 episodes, the show explores 10 popular foods in America. As we learn the history, techniques and rituals that surround the food, we are also shown the history of the people making it, particularly their migration story. The immigration policies that impacted them, both current and historical, are also highlighted.

It is often said that the United States is a nation of immigrants. However, that statement negates an entire group of people and mischaracterizes the history of another. 

There are people whose ancestors have always lived here in the Americas and episode 7 explores the rich food traditions of the Apache and the impact of colonialization on those traditions. The episode starts with fry bread. A food many are familiar with and often considered traditional. But the episode quickly explains that fry bread is a food that was developed out of a necessity to use the commodity food rations given to indigenous people by the United States government, after forcibly removing them from their traditional land and food sources. Though it may be tasty, it is a painful symbol of colonialization, displacement and genocide. The episode goes on to highlight the amazing bounty of food that the Arizona desert provides.  Foods such as prickly pear fruit, barrel cactus fruit, onions, and small game such as rabbit or pack rat. Indigenous chefs are reclaiming the recipes and cooking techniques of their ancestors that have been erased and nearly lost. They are reclaiming the medicinal, healing properties and health benefits of their ancestral food. 

To say that African American ancestors “migrated” to the Americas negates the fact that they were forced to come in chains. Episode 3 explores the rich food traditions of the Gullah Geechee, descendants of enslaved Africans who were brought to the Americas primarily for their knowledge of growing rice. They now live along the coast from northern Florida to North Carolina with an unofficial capital in Charleston, SC. Modern southern and soul food can be traced back to the Gullah, but often they aren’t given credit. Padma talks with chefs and community members who are working and fighting to preserve the traditions and language of the Gullah (a blend of the various languages of the enslaved Africans and English). Sitting on ancestral land where so many atrocities happened, Padma acknowledges that talking about Gullah history is painful, but it is an important part of American History and it is part of the healing process this nation has to undertake. 

They say you are what you eat, but do we even really know what we are eating? or where it comes from? Hot dogs are often seen as quintessentially American, as American as baseball and apple pie. But hot dogs, or wieners, are German; so, in episode 2, Padma travels to Milwaukee to explore German immigration. This episode focuses on assimilation and the fact that so many of the German contributions to US culture have been so thoroughly absorbed, they are no longer viewed as German, but simply American. Padma says “Assimilation is complicated. While many people fight to be accepted. Others work to hold on to what might get lost. And that push and pull my friends, is America.”  

Many episodes explore what it means to pass on your cultural traditions to children who have a hyphenated identity. In episode 3, about Indian dosas, Padma’s daughter (Indian-American) reluctantly admits that she prefers pancakes to dosas. This cultural transmission is further complicated when you can’t travel back to where your traditions originate, as in episode 6 about kabob and the Iranian-American children of immigrants who fled Iran following the revolution. 

The very first episode of the series is perhaps the most relevant to our current debate on immigration. The episode goes to El Paso, to explore, the burrito. The chefs interviewed are quick to note that what we’ve been eating at Chipotle, is NOT what they are making. One chef notes that “a burrito is tradition wrapped in colonialization… Flour is not one of our ancestral foods. It’s an imposed food.” So that flour tortilla, like fry bread, is a symbol of colonialization. The episode talks a lot about the region and the arbitrary border that separates families and friends and has become ever increasingly militarized. Padma says, America loves Mexican food, but asks, “what about the hands that make that food?” Chef Marentes takes great pride in making his tortillas but notes, “It’s hard for me to think that people are going to accept my tortillas before they accept my cousins.” 

The last episode takes the viewers to Hawaii and is about poke. It focuses on the fusion of traditional Japanese and Hawaiian ingredients and cooking techniques. Gastronomically, the two have fused well, elements of each have been retained but have combined to create a delicious hybrid. Padma wonders if this could serve as a model for the nation. What would our country look like if traditions could be accepted and respected but also joined to create something new and beautiful. It’s a hopeful note, one that is much needed in these times. 

What does it mean to be American? Who decides? Which cultures are welcomed, accepted? Which ones are ignored or erased? Taste the Nation explores all of these questions and more. 

But as Chef Twitty says, quoting a West African saying, “if you sit at my table and eat with me, you’ll know who I am.” The table Padma Lakshmi explores is rich in flavor and diversity. It brings stories of pain and hope. And if we sit together and eat at this table, we will get to see the beauty of what it means to be American. 

(Hulu is a subscription based streaming service: https://www.hulu.com/)

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Save Asylum- Take Action Now!

The comment period to protest the proposed changes to the US Asylum laws closes Wednesday July 15, 2020.

Speak out now!

To learn more about the proposed changes and what you can do to speak up against them please visit the Bay Area Border Relief page.

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Mazatlán Franciscans still providing food to migrants

The Franciscan Network on Migration provides support to migrants traveling through Central America and Mexico. The network includes dozens of shelters and soup kitchens in the region. The shelters that we are working with most directly are the Frontera Digna in Piedras Negras, La 72 in Tenosique, and the Casa y Comedor San Francisco de Asís in Mazatlán, pictured below.

In Mazatlán, the house has been primarily a soup kitchen, or comedor. During periods of high traffic, however, people have been allowed to sleep in the corridors and courtyard at the church that is providing support. Thanks to the donation of a new facility, and support from donors helping to fund renovations, there will be a full service shelter in the coming months – though not likely to open until after the current health crisis has abated.

The photographs below show friars in Mazatlán providing meals this week – as they have for years. But, for now, they must offer bags “to go,” as sit-down meals are not possible because due to pandemic health considerations.

The Quixote Center is the fiscal sponsor for the Franciscan Network on Migration within the United States.

You can donate to support the work of the network here.

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Take Action: Courts push back against the Trump administration

Dreamers

The Supreme Court ruling against the Trump administration’s effort to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) has been well covered in the news. DACA offered protection from removal for “dreamers,” or people who arrived in this country as children but who are unauthorized. The ruling allows DACA to stand as policy, though there may well be further efforts to halt the program. The future of the policy largely lies with the upcoming election.

In addition to this landmark ruling there have been three other recent decisions to note. 

I. Children in Custody

In the first case, a federal judge ordered Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release all of the children in its custody due to concerns about exposure to COVID-19. A huge victory, at least on the surface. The judge did not specify that parents must also be released. If ICE insists on holding parents, this could set up another family separation crisis. 

Immigrant children are held by the U.S. government through several agencies. Customs and Border Protection may hold unaccompanied children and families with children, usually for 72 hours or less, before making a determination to deport, release or transfer them. Currently, almost everybody picked up by CBP, including unaccompanied minors, are being deported immediately with almost no processing and no opportunity to seek asylum. 

Unaccompanied children, at least prior to the border closure in March, were typically transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, where they would be detained until a family member or community sponsor could be located. There are just over 1,000 children in ORR custody right now, a very small number by recent standards – mostly because new arrivals are simply being deported.

Families with children, at least those that are able to remain together, are typically transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which detains families in one of three facilities (two in Texas, one in Pennsylvania). These children are the focus of the judge’s order: “Citing recently reported coronavirus cases among detained families, as well as allegedly lax masking and social distancing enforcement at two family detention facilities in Texas, U.S. Judge Dolly Gee ordered ICE to release all minors who have been held for more than 20 days.”

The catch is that Gee does not have the authority to mandate the release of parents – her authority is directly tied to oversight of the Flores Settlement agreement that provides guidance for the treatment of children in custody. The choice is that ICE must either release the parents as well, or separate the families by placing children with community sponsors or other family members. Unless pressed to do otherwise, ICE will almost certainly try to continue detaining the parents – which means separating children from parents yet again. 

Members of Congress issued a letter to the Department of Homeland Security and ICE leadership asking that families be released together.

“Family separation should never be this country’s policy. Medical organizations have long stated that the practice creates extraordinary harm to children,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter to Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and Acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director Matthew Albence. “Detention of children for any amount of time, even with their parents, causes physical harm and irreparable trauma.”

ICE has until July 17 to release all of the children in custody.  Take a moment to sign our petition demanding that families be released together.

Sign the Petition!

II. Public Health Service Act

The next case involved a direct challenge to the administration’s authority to summarily expel children and asylum seekers under a Center of Disease Control policy that Trump has used to essentially shut the border down to everyone – including refugees and unaccompanied children. The ACLU, Oxfam and the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies sued on behalf of a 16 year-old boy from Honduras and his father. From the ACLU’s release on the judges initial ruling in favor of the child:

A federal court has once again provisionally blocked the deportation of a Honduran boy in the first legal challenge to the Trump administration’s order restricting immigration at the border based on an unprecedented and unlawful invocation of the Public Health Service Act, located in Title 42 of the U.S. Code…

U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols issued a ruling from the bench today prohibiting the removal of the boy under Title 42 protocols as the lawsuit continues. The judge agreed with the plaintiff’s central argument that the CDC had likely exceeded its authority in ordering the expulsion of children and asylum seekers under the public health laws. (emphasis added).

This case may establish the necessary precedent to bring an end to Trump’s border expulsions policy, which has so far led to over 40,000 people removed at the border without any due process. Though the ruling this week does not by itself do that – it is an important first step toward bringing this tragedy to an end.

III. Transit Ban

Finally, a court ruling on Tuesday will end – for the time being – the Trump administration’s efforts to close off asylum to anyone who transits a third country prior to reaching the U.S. border. The so-called “transit ban” had effectively ended asylum for anyone arriving at the U.S./Mexico border who was not a Mexican national. The transit ban was clearly intended to target Central American refugees, but ultimately impacted refugees from all over the world who travel through several countries in Latin America before arriving at the U.S. border. 

The case was brought by the Capital Area Immigrant Rights Coalition, and was focused on the administration’s violation of rule-making procedures and public notification requirements related to the transit-ban. The merits of the policy itself are also under judicial review in a separate case. In a communication to coalition partners, CAIR’s litigation director, Claudia Cubas, wrote:

In CAIR Coalition v Trump, Judge Timothy Kelly, a Trump appointee sitting on the federal bench in D.C., just vacated the third-country transit rule (the Administration’s asylum ban II barring asylum seekers who passed through third countries en route to the US without seeking asylum in other countries) in its entirety, based on the government’s failure to follow APA notice-and-comment.  The court also declined to stay its decision, so it goes into effect right away.

TAKE ACTION

These rulings are part of larger efforts to restore asylum policies in the United States. Toward that end, we encourage everyone to take part in Virtual Asylum Advocacy Days on July 14-16. The Asylum Working Group and Interfaith Immigration Coalition are organizing virtual legislative visits with your members of Congress. There will be a virtual training session to help prepare in advance. You can sign up here.

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The United States’ uncomfortable relationship to torture

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

The Convention defines torture:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Toto” Constant back in Haiti and other updates, take action

Shada Demolition

On Monday, June 15 bulldozers razed the community of Shada II in Cap-Haitien, along Haiti’s northern coast. Close to 1,500 families lost their homes as a result. Apparently none were notified in advance of the destruction, nor were any compensated for the loss. This inexplicable act was officially carried out in retaliation for a gang assault that left a police officer and five other people dead days before – but this is either not at all true, or, at best, a very partial explanation. The largest gang in Shada is assumed to be politically aligned, and thus this may well have been in part retaliation. However, that hardly suffices as an explanation for putting 1,500 families out of their homes in the midst of a pandemic.

The organization SOIL has been working in Shada II since 2004 issued a statement about the demolition (full statement here):

At this critical moment in global history, when the world is grappling with the combined public health emergencies of COVID-19 and systemic racism, we feel it is critical that we call attention to human rights issues that impact the communities we serve. There are many unanswered questions about what happened in Shada II last week, and we urge human rights groups to investigate. At the same time, SOIL stands in solidarity with the thousands of innocent people who lost their homes and belongings, and we recommit our organization to sustained social change. True change demands that all stakeholders come to the table to shine a light on the injustices suffered by vulnerable communities caught in the crosshairs of larger political, economic, and social forces, particularly at a moment when the world is facing an unprecedented crisis that calls for compassionate ingenuity and proactive support to those most at risk. 

We will continue to report on this as more details unfold and the community regroups to decide what comes next.

Toto Constant is Back in Haiti

Emmanuel “Toto” Constant was deported from the United States to Haiti on Tuesday, June 23. Constant is the former leader of the FRAPH, a notorious paramilitary organization responsible for the deaths of thousands of people while the country was under military rule following the coup against Aristide in 1991.  Constant fled to the United States when Aristide was reinstated in 1995 where he remained until this week. Meanwhile, in Haiti, Constant was convicted in 2000 in absentia for his involvement in the massacre at Raboteau. Despite the conviction, Constant was allowed to remain in the United States. Early efforts to remove him stalled, and most assume he was being protected as a former CIA asset. However, he was later convicted of real estate fraud in New York and imprisoned. For many the hope was he would remain in prison. 

After serving 12 years of a 37 year sentence, Constant was released from prison and immediately taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Reports that Constant was to be deported emerged in early May. Over the course of several weeks ICE would put Constant on a flight manifest, to later remove him. Constant was finally deported this Tuesday. What does this mean?

Constant was arrested upon his arrival under the 2000 conviction which still stands. However, Constant is entitled to a new trial. Brian Concannon and Mario Joseph (both of whom were involved in landmark human rights trials in the late 1990s that led to the 2000 conviction of Constant and others) published an op-ed in the Miami Herald that explains what is at stake.

A credible prosecution of Constant must respect both his rights and those of the Raboteau Massacre’s victims, who have official status in the case under Haiti’s “civil party” system. The victims are entitled to a robust prosecution that presents all the available evidence, as well as the right to notice of hearings, to participate in some of them and to appeal rulings that infringe on their rights. The original Raboteau trial is a good benchmark: It included expert testimony from international forensic and military experts, documents from the military archives and extensive victim and witness testimony.

The passage of time since Constant’s crimes in Haiti does not prevent his prosecution. His death squad’s murder and torture of civilians were both widespread and systematic, placing them squarely within the definition of crimes against humanity, so the statute of limitations cannot apply. Constant was convicted under a command responsibility theory, and the evidence was mostly documents, which are as credible as ever.

For now, the hope is that Constant remains in custody. He has many former political allies in positions of power under the current government -and should he be released, could wreak havoc. The U.S. has a role here. In 2000 the Clinton administration stalled releasing documents related to FRAPH activity that had been taken by US forces from FRAPH headquarters in 1995 during the operation to reinstate Aristide. Once documents were released they were heavily redacted. The U.S. must support requests for evidence this time around. 

Deportation flights continue…for now

As indicated by Toto Constant’s arrival in Haiti, deportation flights are continuing. We encourage everyone to continue to reach out to members of Congress and press for an end to these flights.

If you have not done so yet, you can send a message to your member of the House and ask them to support legislation to end deportations to Haiti. The Haiti Deportation Relief Act was introduced by Frederica Wilson and has the support of committee and subcommittee chairs on the Foreign Relations committee – which means it could get a hearing, committee vote and make it to the floor of the House if people show enough support. It clearly will have a hard time moving in the Senate – but we must press when and where we can!

In addition, the Quixote Center’s Executive Director, John Marchese, was one of 360+ human rights activists and other notables to sign a letter that was sent to the Department of Homeland Security and State Department, including the U.S. Ambassador to Haiti, last week. The letter was organized by the Haitian Bridge Alliance. You can read that here. You can also then print this letter, and send it with a message to your members of Congress to end deportation flights! Find their address here.

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Take Action to Halt Deportations to Haiti

One of the most obvious ways in which ICE continues to thumb its bureaucratic nose at decency and common sense is their policy of continuing deportations amidst a global pandemic. Based on information from public flight tracking websites, the Center for Economic and Policy Research has identified 330 likely deportation flights to Latin America and the Caribbean since February 3, 2020. There were three flights yesterday – two to Mexico, one to the Dominican Republic.

We know that these flights have sent people who tested positive for COVID-19 to Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, El Salvador, Jamaica, India and Haiti. Likely, people with the virus have been deported to most other places these planes fly. At this point it would be nearly impossible to assemble a flight where no one had been exposed, as coronavirus is now present throughout the ICE detention network. The testing regime is insufficient. ICE does not test everyone before they board a deportation flight, and those who are tested are given a 15-minute, “rapid test” that has been demonstrated to have a high false negative rate.

The chorus of people who have asked these flights to be halted is significant: Editorial boards, members of Congress and nearly every non-governmental organization working on immigration policy or in a country impacted by these flights. For more background on these flights and the problems associated with them you can read our reporting on this blog, Jack Johnson’s research article on the CEPR blog, or Daniella Burgi-Palomino’s opinion piece on Truthout here.

The latest effort demanding a halt to these flights is a letter to State Department officials, including the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, organized by the Haitian Bridge Alliance. This letter is demanding that deportation flights to Haiti in particular be halted throughout the duration of the current health crisis. The letter was released today. From the Haitian Bridge Alliance press release:

Today Ibram X Kendi, Danny Glover, Edwidge Danticat, Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., Opal Tometi, Guerline Jozef, Dr. Barbara Ransby PhD, Randall Robinson, Jackson Browne, and Rainn Wilson, along with 359 other prominent human rights, humanitarian and racial justice leaders signed a letter urging the United States to immediately halt deportations to Haiti during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A letter to the U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Michele Sison, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf states: “Deportations export COVID-19 throughout the region and put countless lives at risk….The capacity of Haiti’s health system to respond to COVID-19 cases is already at its limit,” and a spike of infections could “destroy an already weak economy and exacerbate political instability.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has sent six deportation flights to Haiti since March 18, despite the serious risk of infection to deportees and transmission upon arrival. At least eight deportees who had tested positive for COVID-19 by ICE were deported to Haiti on May 26. One of them complained of symptoms the night before he was deported. Given the severe limitations on the availability of COVID testing and the unreliability of test results, “there is simply no safe way to deport persons.”

ICE told the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 2, 2020, that it does not test all detainees before deporting them. The letter notes that of the 30 Haitians deported on May 26, 14 were not tested before deportation, and the other 16 were tested with the “15 minute test” which the Food and Drug Administration considers unreliable because it gives “false negatives.” The lack of reliable testing violates explicit promises given by the United States to Haiti that it would test all deportees within 72 hours of their departure.

What can you do….

Frederica Wilson has introduced legislation in the House of Representatives to halt all deportations to Haiti until the health crisis in both countries is over. You can click on the button below send a message asking your member of Congress to co-sponsor this legislation.

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#FreeThemAll Campaign Update #3

Since early March we, and many others, have been calling for the release of people from prisons, jails and immigrant detention centers as a necessary step to stop the spread of COVID-19, and protect the lives of those incarcerated. During late March and April there were releases, largely of people in pre-trial detention in county jails and/ people at the end of their sentences, if they had been incarcerated for a non-violent offense. At the same time very few state prisons joined in releases, and the Federal system also largely failed to release people. 

The numbers now are truly horrific. As of June 9, the Marshall Project reports that 43,967 people who are incarcerated in state and federal prisons in this country have tested positive for COVID-19 – and only a handful of states have even begun wide-spread testing in prisons. That is an overall rate of close to 29 per 1,000.  States that have instigated wide spread testing regimes, such as Texas, have double this rate or more. New Jersey has the highest rate at 135 cases per 1,000. 

522 people have died of COVID-19 in prison since the beginning of the outbreak.

In addition, there have been 9,180 cases of prison staff with COVID-19 and 38 deaths.

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


In immigrant detention centers, the total number of people being held has fallen off dramatically – from 38,000 in mid-March to just over 24,000 today. However, the driving force behind this fall in detentions is not releases but deportations. While advocates have been successful in getting humanitarian releases for individual clients, it has been quite a battle, as ICE has fought every effort in the courts. ICE has also continued its process of transferring people within its detention network, which has accelerated the spread of the disease. Meanwhile, deportations have continued, and include documented deportations of people with COVID-19 to Mexico, Jamaica, India, El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, and Haiti, with concerns about deportations to Brazil and Ecuador as well. 

ICE has been reporting confirmed cases of COVID-19 among people incarcerated in their detention network since April, but recently changed the format of these reports. They also reported an inexplicable increase in the number of people tested over two days by 1,800, with no parallel increase in cases. That said, according to official data, of the 5,096 people tested, 2,016 have tested positive (as of June 5). Almost 1,000 are still in custody. ICE only reports 2 deaths in custody, but we’ve reported on three, and frankly, people released and/or deported are not tracked. Which is to say, I don’t believe their reporting on this at all.

Conditions inside immigrant detention centers and prisons remain horrible. Among the more outlandish cases of gross inhumanity, is the GEO Group’s spraying of chemical disinfectants intended for outdoor use inside Adelanto Detention Facility. On May 21, Freedom for Immigrants reported jointly with the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice that dozens of people have been made sick by the use of this disinfectant  – but the company has not (as of this writing, to my knowledge) changed its practice. ICE, for its part, has simply backed the company, saying any suggestion they are using the chemical inappropriately is a lie.

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

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Can you shame the shameless?


In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.  Stokely Carmichael

Last week the United States government deported 150 people to India, among them were 76 people from Haryana State. Upon arrival 22 of those people tested positive for COVID-19. On Tuesday of this week, the United States deported 30 people to Haiti. Eight of those people tested positive while in detention in the U.S. in late April or early May. None of them had been retested before being put on a flight. As I write now, those deported are being quarantined and retested in Haiti – where access to tests is in short supply. 

On Sunday, May 24 Santiago Baten-Oxlaj died after being detained at the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia. He was the third person to die in the last three weeks with COVID-19.  Like the other two to die, Oscar López Acosta, and Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, he was facing “criminal removal,” meaning he had committed a crime in the United States, completed a sentence in a U.S. jail or prison for that crime, and was then picked up by ICE to be deported. The “crimes” that led to months-long detention, and ultimately death for these three men, were a conviction for drunk driving, years old drug possession charges, and crossing the border without papers for a second time. Certainly, they had done nothing to warrant a death sentence, which the 25,911 people in detention as of May 23rd are now facing. They should all, I repeat, ALL, be released to shelter in place with family. For those who don’t have family, there are community sponsors lined up to assist. This must be done now. We’re basically out of time.

ICE has tested about 10% of the people in custody – 52% of those tested, 1,392 people as of May 29, have tested positive. Despite months of warning, ICE has done next to nothing to change its procedures. They have provided almost no protective equipment. Indeed, two men working for a private contractor in a Monroe, Louisiana facility, where staff were told not to wear face masks, are now dead. ICE has continued to move people around from facility to facility within the United States. Even those they know have COVID-19. They have continued to deport people – from these facilities, to countries around the world. 

In the process, ICE is confirmed to have deported people with COVID-19 to Haiti, Mexico, Jamaica, Colombia, India and Guatemala. ICE has very likely sent people with coronavirus to Ecuador, Brazil, Honduras and El Salvador, as well, and possibly even Nicaragua, which sees very few deportations, but did have a flight last week that originated from the Alexandria, Louisiana Staging Facility – the site of the worst staff COVID-19 outbreak in the system.  ICE has done such a bad job at containing the virus within its detention facilities, that it is becoming impossible for them to put together a flight without people who have been exposed. They are supposedly testing more under pressure from recipient countries, but can’t even do that right. In the last two weeks, ten people arrived in Guatemala with COVID-19 on deportation flights after ICE assured the government that all had been tested. This was at least the fourth deportation flight to Guatemala that included people testing positive for COVID-19 upon arrival. The president of Guatemala suspended flights from the U.S. for the third time last week, and was, for the first time, publicly critical of the U.S. government for showing such disrespect to his country.

The next day, the United States deported 25 children to Guatemala anyway. 

Immigration and Customs Enforcement was already a pretty unpopular agency before COVID-19. Thus far, in the context of a global pandemic, ICE has conducted itself with a “callous indifference” to the conditions of the people in its custody. It is not a secret, of course, and so, ICE’s non-handling of containment related to COVID-19, the deaths in custody, and the absurdity of not just deporting people, but strong arming governments critical of the practice, have all resulted in criticisms far and wide. From members of Congress, to the editorial boards of major newspapers and foreign leaders  – people have spoken out to halt deportations and drastically reduce the number of people in detention. Nothing has changed. 

As the quote above suggests, it is nearly impossible to tweak the conscience of people who have none. That is the situation we are facing with immigration enforcement in this country. The people responsible are indifferent to the consequences of their practices. Checks and balances are not working. The administration simply refuses to answer questions, or lies to Congress with impunity. Federal courts are the one venue where practices have been challenged successfully, but upon appeal, the Supreme Court has sided with the Trump administration more often than not.

So, how to shame the shameless?

You can’t. You can’t reason with people who have constructed a highly profitable immigration gulag out of lies and misinformation. And you can’t stop them from putting all of our lives at risk by failing to enforce the most basic health precautions against COVID-19. They do not care. 

What can we do? We can out maneuver them. First, while the national scene seems hopeless, at the local level people are winning fights, getting people released, and moving local, county and even state governments to push back against the ICE enforcement machine. The people in power in D.C. will not be there forever, and to dismantle what they have wrought we will need a vocal constituency to keep up the pressure once they are gone. Local action builds that national constituency one campaign at a time. Check out the #FreeThemAll campaign for connections.

Second, there is the creation of a parallel infrastructure. There now exists an expansive ecosystem of support for migrant communities in this country – from a national network of community bail funds, to shelters, to sanctuary churches and sanctuary cities providing a wide range of services. The government cannot really touch these things. The folks in the White House can complain, demonize and misinform, and curtail state support where it exists. But they can’t stop this process. 

Finally, in all of this work there are efforts to build out. The immigration rights movement is significant – and has grown tremendously as a result of Trump’s all out war against immigrants. That said, we can’t win alone. In freeing people from detention, we build common cause with the prison abolition movement. In organizing to support immigrant workers fighting wage theft and abuse in the workplace, we reach out to labor organizers. Together we all can fight climate change – a major driver behind forced displacement, and we must speak out against the brutality of war and our government’s foreign policy more generally that contributes to forced displacement and bankrupts us here at home. 

I don’t honestly care one bit what Trump thinks at night when alone, or whether he regrets the cruelty he has sought to normalize for political gain. I doubt such self-reflection is possible for him. What keeps me up at night is thinking about how to make his point of view irrelevant.  We might not find a conscience there to tweak, but we do outnumber them. Let’s not ever forget that and work together to make the world we want to see.

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  • Quixote Center
    7307 Baltimore Ave.
    Ste 214
    College Park, MD 20740
  • Office: 301-699-0042
    Email: info@quixote.org

Direction to office:

For driving: From Baltimore Ave (Route 1) towards University of Maryland, turn right onto Hartwick Rd. Turn immediate right in the office complex.

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