La 72, Franciscan Network on Migration and others, denounce Mexican immigration authorities after death in custody

Firefighters on the scene. Image/La 72

Héctor Rolando Barrientos Dardón died on Tuesday during a fire at the Tenosique Migration Station, an immigrant detention facility near Mexico’s border with Guatemala in the state of Tabasco. His death occurred during a protest by several men who were denouncing their ongoing detention in the overcrowded facility, a situation which puts their lives at risk in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the protest a sleeping mat caught on fire. According to witness testimony collected by staff at La 72, a nearby shelter and human rights organization we work with, guards at the migration station refused to let people leave the facility, locking the gates and threatening to beat anyone attempting escape, including men, women and children. As a result of the fire, Barrientos, a forty-two year old man from Guatemala, was killed, and fourteen other people were seriously injured. A group of migrants did finally break down the door to the men’s area where the fire began and were able to get people out. Barrientos was seeking asylum in Mexico. According to this press report, he should have been released on Thursday, April 2 to pursue his case.

Our partners in the Franciscan Network on Migration, La 72 house for migrants , issued a press release denouncing the actions of guards and local police, as well as the ongoing failure of Mexico’s National Institute on Migration (INM) to secure the rights of migrants in Mexico. They also expressed concern that the National Human Rights Commission did not send anyone to investigate the fire, despite the Commission’s earlier call on March 19th for the INM to “implement precautionary measures to safeguard the physical, psychological, health and life conditions of migrants housed in immigration stations.”

In the same press release, La 72 raised additional concerns about the subsidiary impact of the U.S. policy of returning asylum seekers to Mexico, which is straining an already unsustainable situation: 

Last weekend we received in La 72 three Honduran people: a mother, with her 15-year-old daughter, and a male adult,  deported from the United States and Mexico. They first crossed into Texas, where they were captured by border patrol agents and immediately deported to Reynosa, remaining in custody of Mexican immigration. During their confinement at the Immigration Station, the mother and daughter were denied consular representation and the possibility of requesting refuge in Mexico. They were told they would have to do so in the south. On March 24, they signed their deportation order, indicating that they would be returned across the border from Talisman, Chiapas….The INM breached the deportation order and transferred them to the border port of El Ceibo, in Tabasco, where they were forced to cross through a blind spot, irregularly and clandestinely, towards Guatemala in order to continue on their journey to Honduras. The Guatemalan army intercepted them at the border and returned them to Mexico again. These abusive practices not only violate fundamental rights, such as the principle of non-refoulement, but also put the life and integrity of the deported persons at risk.

The release ends with three demands:

  1. The National Institute on Migration must carry out a thorough investigation into the death in Tenosique, clarify internal responsibility and take urgent measures to ensure that no more deaths occur in migration stations.
  2. The government of Mexico, in the context of the pandemic, should stop the arrest of migrants, release people detained at migrant stations, and guarantee the safe return of those who wish to return.
  3. Authorities at the local, state and federal level of government must work to guarantee the rights of migrants to health and protection permanently and with special attention for the duration of the pandemic.

Yesterday, La 72 joined hundreds of other organizations in Mexico in issuing a second statement further denouncing Mexican immigration authorities and calling for the firing of the head to National Institute on Immigration. The letter notes that the death in detention was the result of systemic abuses. They also state that, “keeping people in immigration detention, at serious risk of Covid-19 infection, is a violation of human rights and an attack on the lives of migrants and those who work in immigration stations.” For these reasons the organizations demand “the immediate dismissal of the INM commissioner.” You can read the full text of the organization letter here (in Spanish)

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Take Action: #FreeThemAll and End Deportation Flights

#FreeThemAll week of Action Continues today

Drawing connections between immigrant detention and mass incarceration.

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

Register here (interpretation in Spanish will be available)

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

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

Some related news….

Federal Prisons go on total lock down (from CNN)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End deportation flights!

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

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

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

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

Sign Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From Rikers Island to Adelanto #FreeThemAll

Rikers Island

We are running out of time to save the lives of those incarcerated in the world’s largest network of prisons, jails, and detention sites.  There are 2 million people incarcerated in the United States – more than any other country on the planet. They are all at risk. 

 In just the last three days, states and large cities have announced lockdowns, seeking to restrict the movement of people and lessen points of contact in the face of a dramatic spike in COVID-19 infections. Social distancing coupled with regimens of basic hygiene such as regular hand washing are the primary means of fighting the spread of coronavirus generally and COVID-19 in particular. There is no vaccine, no cure. Its spread can only be managed through changes in human behavior – and those recommended changes are not available to people who are locked up. As even the most isolated jail cell requires a degree of social interaction between those incarcerated and the community in which they are situated, what happens behind these walls should concern us all.

The biggest story this week has been the COVID-19 outbreak at the massive Rikers Island prison complex, which is under the authority of the city government in New York. As of March 24, the number of people imprisoned at Rikers with confirmed cases of COVID-19 was 52, up from 39 cases fewer than 24 hours earlier. The number of staff testing positive was up to 30 from 21.  Prisoners protesting the lack of medical care were pepper sprayed earlier this week. In a long twitter thread yesterday, a public defender from Brooklyn compared Rikers to a “slave ship” noting that unsanitary conditions and overcrowding were setting the stage for “mass death.” There are more than 5,000 people incarcerated at Rikers Island. However, city officials are only planning to release 300 people.  Mayor DeBlasio plans to release another 800 people from other city jail facilities. 

Last week, a day after the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Rikers, Nick Pinto, writing in the Intercept, laid out the disaster scenario that is now unfolding. Lack of staff, lack of resources, and ultimately a lack of care. 

Last week, a man with a medical history that makes him especially vulnerable to contracting coronavirus, housed in a special-housing unit in one Rikers jail, called a social worker twice in one day to report that he was exhibiting symptoms of disease. Others in his special housing unit were coughing and exhibiting flu-like symptoms, the man told the social worker, who relayed the account to a lawyer who asked that they all remain anonymous to avoid reprisals. The men in the unit were told that there were not enough correction officers to transport them to the health clinic.

Yesterday, a reporter with the Appeal spoke with someone inside Rikers who described how medical personal simply shouted from the door to ask if anyone had symptoms:

The doctors said they were going to come and do screenings every day, but for the past two days, they’ve just come into the dorm and stood by the front door and yelled, “Does anybody have any symptoms?” and then walked out. The first day, they sat down, had everybody come in, checked them off a list, asked them if they had symptoms, if anyone said they weren’t sure, they took their temperature.

They’re not doing any of that [now]. They did that once. And now they just come in and yell. Some people don’t speak English, some people are in the shower or the toilet or the day room or listening to the radio or taking a nap, you know? Because if one person has it in a dorm of 40-odd people, that’s a huge problem.

County Jails

Outside of New York City, there have been some successful, though still sporadic, efforts to reduce the number of people who are locked up at the local level. There are just over 630,000 people in county and local jails around the country. 470,000 of them have not been convicted but are being held in pre-trial detention, most simply unable to pay bail. So, we can, and must do better. That said, county and state officials are at least trying to reduce numbers in local jails through early and compassionate release of those at risk.

For example, in New Jersey, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner of the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered the release of hundreds of inmates in county jails, writing, “The reduction of county jail populations, under appropriate conditions, is in the public interest to mitigate risks imposed by Covid-19.” In Montana, Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath is asking judges statewide to release nonviolent and other jail inmates to reduce crowding and protect against the spread of coronavirus. Though no one in local jails has tested positive, the judge wrote,”Due to the confines of these facilities, it will be virtually impossible to contain the spread of the virus.” 

Detroit area counties are reducing the number of people in jail. For example, “In Oakland County, Sheriff Michael Bouchard tells Local 4 [an NBC affiliate] jail personnel is reviewing cases for early release. It is a time consuming process because they are looking at the current offense and history of offenders.” The number of people in the jail has fallen from 1,262 to 1,079 in three weeks. Wayne County reduced the number of people in jail from 1,381 to 1,138 in two weeks. Los Angeles County has seen a reduction of nearly 1,700 over the last two weeks, or 10% of the jail population. “All of those inmates had fewer than 30 days left on their sentences. And all were convicted of nonviolent misdemeanors.”

Other areas are committed, but struggling to get the releases done. For example, Harris County, TX (Houston) Sheriff Ed Gonzalez is trying to get hundreds of people out on compassionate release. But, thus far, judges have only released 60 people.  “Our priority is reducing the population strategically in a way that targets our most at-risk inmates who are nonviolent,” said Jason Spencer, spokesman for Gonzalez. “Those charged with nonviolent crimes over a certain age and those who have preexisting health conditions that make them especially vulnerable to corona virus.” In Kentucky, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Minton Jr. urged state court officials to release jail inmates “as quickly as we can” to “avoid potentially calamitous outbreaks of the novel coronavirus behind bars.” But thus far, there has been no reduction in the jail population. The justice warned, “Kentucky’s overcrowded jails desperately need our attention…Much like nursing homes, jails are susceptible to worse-case scenarios due to the close proximity of people and the number of pre-existing conditions.”

State Prisons

As indicated by these stories, counties all across the country are working to get people out.  At the same time, as described by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, “no similar push has taken place with prisons, despite the fact that the coronavirus has already infected employees and prisoners in at least five states.” There are over 1.2 million people in state prisons around the country. This is a ticking time bomb, and yet, little comparative urgency to get people out. 

In Utah, for example, while county jail officials are trying to reduce the number of people incarcerated, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, the state prison authority declared that there are, “‘no active plans’ as of Tuesday to release any of the more than 6,500 people who are currently incarcerated. ‘We are coordinating with our partner agencies at this time,’ prison spokeswoman Kaitlin Feldsted said, ‘and will likely have more information later in the week.’”

In Texas, one prisoner and one counselor working in the state prison system, have tested positive, while dozens who have been tested await results. Within the state prison system, visitations have been cancelled as the result of a statewide health emergency crisis called by Governor Abbott. However, state prison authorities have no capacity to test for the virus. Everyone tested thus far has been tested off-site, increasing the danger of exposure. Many more prisoners with flu-like symptoms have not been tested but are “being medically isolated from other prisoners.” Yet, getting people out of prison altogether is not on the table, despite the risks.

In Mississippi, the state Department of Corrections has issued guidelines to stop transfers of prisoners and halted visitation. People participating in off-site work programs are not being allowed out. However, humanitarian or compassionate releases on any significant scale are not being planned. At the notorious Parchman Prison, already understaffed, people are staying away from work. From the Clarion Ledger,

Fears of the coronavirus are running so high at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman that some employees are staying away, renewing concerns about low staffing at the prison, which is already under investigation by the Justice Department.

Lucinda Addison, a case worker, said she has stayed away from Parchman for a week out of fear of catching COVID-19 because she already suffers from diabetes. Experts say those suffering from diabetes may be at higher risk for complications from the disease.

Her absence from the prison has stoked fears among inmates and family members that someone at the prison already has tested positive for the novel virus.

 In New York, which has become ground zero for coronavirus infections in the United States, the state prison system has not been spared.  Indeed, while all eyes are on Rikers Island in New York City, coronavirus is spreading in the state system as well. From the New Yorker:

The coronavirus has now found its way into New York’s prison system. On Sunday, the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, or D.O.C.C.S., confirmed that two prisoners at Wende Correctional Facility had tested positive for covid-19. (One of them, according to multiple reports, is the former movie producer Harvey Weinstein, who was sent to the facility only recently after being convicted of rape.) Health officials in Cayuga County announced that the coronavirus had infected a man who had been incarcerated at Auburn Correctional Facility. D.O.C.C.S. has also confirmed three cases of covid-19 in its ranks: one officer at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, another at Shawangunk Correctional Facility, and one civilian staff member in Albany.

Immigrant Detention Facilities

Adelanto Detention Center

The number of people held in immigrant detention facilities is difficult to track. Generally speaking, we track this by looking at the number of people held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in their network of 200+ detention sites around the country. That number is currently just over 38,000, down from an all time peak of 55,000 in August of 2019, but still among the highest numbers ever recorded.

This is not everybody, however. There are also another 3,000 to 4,000 people held by the Customs and Border Protection on any given day. CBP tends to be short-term detention but is renowned for having horrible conditions – those videos and pictures of people under freezing on concrete floors under mylar blankets are CBP facilities. Of course, many people released by CBP are destined to be then held by ICE for much longer. There are another 3,000 or so children currently held by the Office of Refugee Resettlement awaiting placement with family members or community sponsors. The large tent cities erected last year to hold kids are mostly gone, but children are still in custodial settings that put them at higher risk of contracting infectious diseases. Indeed, two staff members working at “undisclosed” ORR facilities caring for children tested positive this week.

Thus far, the primary focus on the #FreeThemAll campaign has been ICE detention. There are good reasons for this. ICE detention is longer term – and getting longer under Trump. The average stay is about two months, and some people end up in detention for well over a year. None of the people in detention are there serving criminal sentences. All are in administrative hold, or civil detention, and thus can be released at the discretion of ICE with no further judicial process. The conditions in detention facilities, especially regarding health services, have been documented repeatedly to be sub-standard. In just the last week, two people have died in detention from infections.

When it comes to immigration policy, Trump sets the most abusive standards possible within the current institutional framework he inherited, and then advocates pushback in the courts. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, Trump refuses to willingly change course on immigration rules – be it inside or outside our borders. And so, in court, people are fighting to gain release of people in immigration detention. In one recent court filing, Dr. Homer Venters submitted evidence concerning conditions in detention centers. He writes:

ICE will not be able to stop the entry of COVID-19 into ICE facilities, and the reality is that the infection is likely inside multiple facilities already. When COVID-19 impacts a community, it will also impact the detention facilities. In New Jersey, one employee at an ICE detention facility has already tested positive, and this is likely just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the number of ICE staff that are already infected but are unaware due to the lack of testing nationwide, and the fact that people who are infected can be asymptomatic for several days. In New York, one of the areas of early spread in the U.S., multiple correctional officers and jail and prison inmates have become infected with COVID-19. The medical leadership in the NYC jail system have announced that they will be unable to stop COVID from entering their facility and have called  for release as the primary response to this crisis. Staff are more likely to bring COVID-19 into a facility, based solely on their movement in and out every day.

Venters goes on to document, what everyone knows, that social distancing and sheltering in place are impossible inside a prison or detention facility. Attorneys Naureen Shah and Andrea Flores noted this more vividly on the ACLU blog yesterday. 

Immigrants in government custody are forced to live, sleep, and eat together. Some spend nearly all day in large rooms filled with closely packed bunk beds, or just long concrete benches. Others live in dank two-person cells, sometimes with minimal ventilation. Dozens of people share toilets and showers, sometimes with no divider and without disinfection between use. Social distancing is not an option. With everything we’ve learned from the Centers for Disease Control, we know these conditions are dangerous, even deadly.

For immigrants in detention, the tools for basic hygiene aren’t available either. Many people don’t have access to soap, let alone hand sanitizer. In Border Patrol stations, many immigrants are detained in overcrowded cells without ready access to sinks and showers. Detained people have described feeling like “sitting ducks, waiting to be infected.” One detained man in New Jersey said he and others were on a hunger strike to try to obtain soap and toilet paper — and that guards reportedly said, “Well, you’re going to have to die of something.”

We are all going to die of something, but for those who would rather not die in the next two weeks strapped to a ventilator and drowning in their own mucus, the federal government could do one a simple thing to make that less likely, and even save money doing so: Release people in immigrant detention facilities. Today.

So, how has ICE responded? The number of people detained by ICE has actually increased over the last two weeks – reversing a 6-month-long period of decline – (though overall March numbers, with a week remaining, are still slightly behind February’s daily average). Indeed, rather than release people, ICE and CBP are trying to get hundreds of millions of dollars to build and manage quarantine facilities. So, agencies that have refused to provide flu vaccines to people in their custody, have refused to hold contractors accountable over decades of medical negligence, and under whose supervision people die from simple infections for lack of care are going to manage medical quarantine? The last thing we need is to make a coronavirus quarantine of immigrants the latest profit-driven experiment for the prison industry.

As fear of infection spreads, detainees have begun protests in facilities in Texas and Louisiana, only to be attacked by guards and pepper-sprayed. Both facilities run by private prison companies. In Pine Prairie, Louisiana, seven men were pepper sprayed and beaten, then placed in solitary after refusing guard orders to go to the yard. At a Pearsall, Texas detention facility, guards attacked a group of 60 men who were protesting for their release. A local attorney told the San Antonio Express:

“These are people sitting, trapped, at the government’s expense without access to proper medical care, so they’re freaking out,” said Andrés Perez, an immigration lawyer for the San Antonio-based Perez & Malik firm. “Pepper spray is uncalled for.”

Meanwhile, in California, asylum seekers speak of inadequate care – still.

Elvira is from Cameroon. She has been held in several different detention centers over the course of the last 3 years of seeking asylum in the United States. Three years in detention!

In Adelanto Detention Center, a privately owned facility operated by GEO Group in Los Angeles, Elvira has told her sisters that the conditions are woefully inadequate to protect against the spread of the coronavirus. She has not received a flu shot, so how, she wonders, will such a facility take precautions against a far more contagious disease? Although only 26, Elvira has conditions that make her more vulnerable should she contract COVID-19. She has suffered complications since giving birth, she’s asthmatic, she has high blood pressure, and she developed hepatitis A from drinking the water in a detention center. When she was diagnosed, she was told to buy water from the commissary at inflated prices. And she still experiences terrible back pain from when government forces in Cameroon beat her with the heel of a gun.

Why is Elvira still incarcerated? She is not a criminal. She has family that can receive her and a community that will support her. She has a strong case for asylum. She should have never been held to begin with. She should be released now.

Along with 37,000 other people in immigrant detention facilities.

And hundreds of thousands of people held in jails and prisons around the country.


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To Contain COVID-19, We Must Tear Down Some Walls

“Viruses know no borders and they don’t care about your ethnicity or the color of your skin or how much money you have in the bank,” Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization health emergencies program. 

Undoubtedly Dr. Ryan is correct about viruses – presumably viruses have no conscious motives at all, at least on this side of an M. Night Shyamalan film script. Unfortunately, real viruses exist in a world full of people who care a great deal about borders, ethnicity, the color of one’s skin, and the amount of money we have in the bank. It is the distribution of power among those people that determines who gets tested and treated, who loses a job or goes bankrupt, who is treated with basic human dignity and who is caged like an animal or turned away at the border. It seems clear that at a time when anyone can get novel coronavirus, the best antidote is to protect everybody. But that would mean setting aside concern for borders, and biases against the poor and people of color. Clearly that won’t happen any time soon. 

At the Border

The first line of defense has been hardening borders. Remember, coronavirus spread outside of China through travel. Millions of people move across borders every day, including some who do not know they are carrying the virus that causes COVID-19. A person traveling across town is no less likely to carry the virus. Indeed, in the United States as in the rest of the world, “community spread,” not foreign travel, is now the chief way novel coronavirus is disseminated. And so, the emphasis on shutting down borders – while inside those borders people move freely – is an illusory solution. More to the point, however, the way that borders are shut matters. 

On Friday, the Trump administration announced an agreement with the government of Mexico for the “partial” closing of the U.S./Mexico border. The agreement limits “nonessential” travel, and in its broad outlines, is similar to an earlier agreement with Canada. What constitutes “essential travel” is clear:

Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf assured that North American trade would not be affected by the U.S.’ agreement with Canada and Mexico to partially close the border.

“Let me be clear that neither of these agreements with Canada or Mexico applies to lawful trade or commerce. Essential commerce activities will not be impacted. We will continue to maintain a strong and secure economic supply chain across our borders,” Wolf said Friday.

Maintaining strong “supply chains” means people cross the border with goods – unless buried in the latest emergency supplemental is money for levitation spells. Driving a truckload of avocados across the border is “essential” travel. People fleeing for their lives is “non-essential” travel. While trade continues, anyone who crosses the border between ports of entry will simply be deported without any further processing or investigation of asylum claims. For those who present themselves at a port of entry, most will also be turned back, though Mexico has said it will only accept non-Mexican nationals from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and only after they are screened. 

We could point out here that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees made clear, that while, “[a]ll states must manage their borders in the context of this unique crisis as they see fit…these measures should not result in closure of avenues to asylum, or of forcing people to return to situations of danger.” We could also point out that Trump tried denying asylum to people picked up between ports of entry before there was something called COVID-19. He was denied by Federal Courts because the statute on asylum is very clear: anyone, no matter how they get here, can apply for asylum once they are on U.S. soil.

In Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the governments are trying to restrict movement and shut down borders just like the rest of the world. One of the exceptions forced on these governments is deportation flights from the United States. For example, last week, the government of Honduras said it would not receive deportation flights from Mexico and the United States following several confirmed cases of novel coronavirus. On Friday, Chad Wolf at DHS said deportation flights would continue. On Sunday, the United States put 92 people on a plane to deport them to Honduras. Most were then put into a separate facility near the airport in San Pedro Sula upon arrival, though several somehow escaped between the plane and the military escort. The United States is continuing to deport people to Guatemala – even though Guatemala has closed its principal international airport. El Salvador has stood firm on not accepting deportation flights thus far. We’ll see how long that lasts.

So, in terms of border security two things seem true. Business will continue, indeed will not be impacted (at least in government press releases) and refugees will be stopped from coming into the United States completely. These policies are not the result of public health planning or epidemiological evidence. This is simply knee jerk nationalism coupled with bone throwing to Wall Street.  Result: the politics of border security ensure that these measures will ultimately be ineffective in slowing the spread of coronavirus. 

Citizen vs Non-citizen

Of course, across the globe we are all now living in a state of exception. Which is to say, we are left not with the rule of law, but official determinations of where exceptions to the law will emerge and who they will apply to. We set aside rights and rules because of emergencies.  And we do not do this in a neutral way. What could go wrong?

Inside our national boundaries, implementation of exceptions to the law is drawing new borders around communities. As Dr. Ryan says, the coronavirus does not care where you were born. Unfortunately, the U.S. Congress does – no matter where you actually live. The Family First Act specifically excludes many immigrants, most residing here lawfully, from receiving support under Medicaid for treatment. The National Immigration Law Center notes, “Many lawfully residing immigrants — including people granted DACA, most lawful permanent residents during their first five years in that status, survivors of crime granted U visas, people from certain Pacific Island nations,  and people with TPS–along with those without status, are ineligible for federal Medicaid.” What this means, of course, is that people who live in this country – most lawfully – who interact with other people who live in this country daily, are denied access to federal assistance that people otherwise similarly situated would be able to access. It is not like they are not paying taxes or otherwise being a burden. But denying treatment to this population causes everyone to suffer. 

Sadly, many of the same people – taxpayers remember – are denied access to the envisioned tax rebate being debated right now. The National Immigration Law Center explains,

The proposed bill leaves out tax filers who have worked and earned income like other taxpayers covered by this bill by excluding households whose tax returns include taxpayers or children who file with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). These families include U.S. citizen children and spouses who are also harmed by the COVID-1 crisis. This exclusion of mixed-status families and individual ITIN filers is both deeply unfair and will exclude families hardest hit by this emergency. It could also make it more difficult to ensure that families can shelter in place, to protect public health.

Limiting non-citizen access to health services and economic support to ensure people stay home when necessary, undermines every effort at containment there is. It is not just these families who will suffer as a result of such restrictions. Again, everyone will. 

Prison Walls

Then we have the smaller borders drawn around the bodies of people society has decided should be locked away. As we have written about separately, for those inside prison walls and detention centers, the risk of coronavirus is grave indeed. The state of New York has topped 26,000 infections, and so, of course, this has impacted prisons like Rikers Island where an outbreak of COVID-19 has now occurred. Certainly it will get much worse, as people cannot “shelter in place” or practice social distancing inside a prison. Reports from inside Rikers are that prisoners were pepper sprayed for demanding medical treatment yesterday.

As people around the country are being encouraged to keep their movements to a minimum, the Federal Bureau of Prisons is still transferring inmates between facilities, despite the evident risks involved, and despite a 30-day moratorium on most movements. ABC reported yesterday, 

Over the weekend, three inmates in the Bureau of Prisons tested positive for the coronavirus. Two tested positive at FCC Oakdale, Louisiana, and one at MDC New York.

According to the BOP, the inmate arrived at Metropolitan Detention Center, Brooklyn, on March 16. On March 19, he complained of chest pains and was taken to an outside hospital, where personnel performed a test for COVID-19. On March 20, he was discharged back to MDC Brooklyn and immediately placed in isolation. On Monday, the BOP was notified that his test results for COVID-19 were positive.


Two sources, at different facilities, have told ABC News that inmates came into their facilities, with no explanation given.

At FCI Tallahassee in Tallahassee, Florida, recently 12 inmates, were transferred into the facility – despite the 30-day stoppage on inmate movements.

Inmates from prisons in New York were transferred to three facilities in Pennsylvania, a source explained.

Finally, Trump has shown no willingness to release immigrants from detention, even as a loud chorus of people, including a former acting director of ICE, encourage him to do so. As we went to great lengths to explain last week – none of the people in detention are serving criminal sentences. All are in civil detention and can be released at the discretion of ICE field directors. Some do have criminal records, and under Clinton-era immigration laws are deportable, even if their offenses were committed years ago. However, very few of the people in detention right now offer any kind of threat to their communities – remember traffic violations constitute the single largest crime that have made some of these folks “deportable.” Indeed, over half have no criminal record at all – and are detained awaiting a hearing with an immigration judge. The transferring of detainees between different facilities goes on all of the time – it is the main reason why 5 isolated cases of mumps reported in December of 2018 turned into an epidemic impacting 1,000 detainees in facilities around the country by March of 2019. With such a track record, ICE cannot be trusted to manage a public health crisis of the magnitude of COVID-19.

Drawing borders around people is no way to contain a disease. Indeed, all of these borderlines are ultimately making it harder to contain novel coronavirus and COVID-19. Putting immigrants, non-citizens and the poor at risk out a false political narrative about who “deserves” assistance and/or protection threatens everyone. As Dr. Ryan noted, viruses are indifferent to this political desire to classify our neighbors along some hierarchy of concern. If we do not adapt our way of thinking and acting, we are all at risk.

Tear Down the Walls

We are engaged in advocacy on all of these points, and invite you to raise your voice as well. Things you can do right now:

Join in the call for the immediate release of people from immigrant detention and other forms of incarceration. For ideas on how to organize in your community check out this tool kit from Detention Watch Network, #FreeThemAll.

We joined 630+ other organizations in demanding that any effort Congress makes at addressing coronavirus be open to everyone! This letter is here. You can help get the word by forwarding the letter and list of signers to your Senators’ offices. Some of the language promoted in this letter was included in the House version of the latest coronavirus legislation introduced last night!

The Trump administration should not be allowed to simply set aside decades of asylum law as they have repeatedly tried to do over the last year. The latest effort is, frankly, and quite clearly, illegal! You can sign, and share, this petition seeking to block this latest effort to block asylum.

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Detention Kills, take action to #FreeThemAll

Another person has died in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Yesterday word came that a man from Honduras died in an apparent suicide while incarcerated at the Karnes County Detention Facility outside of San Antonio, Texas. The man had been detained in mid-February as part of a “family unit.” He applied for asylum and was denied following a credible fear interview. He then lost an appeal of this decision and was facing deportation back to Honduras when he took his own life. Details of who was traveling with him or what decision had been made in their case(s) are not publicly available. He is the ninth person to die in ICE custody since October 1. We remember all of those who have died in ICE custody. This year they are:

Nebane Abienwi, from Cameroon, October 1, 2019. Otay Mesa Detention facility (CoreCivic).

Roylan Hernandez-Diaz, from Cuba, October 15, 2019, Richwood Correctional Facility (Lasalle Corrections)

Anthony Oluseye Akinyemi from Nigeria, December 21, 2019. Worcester County Jail

Samuelino Pitchout Mavinga from France, December 29, 2019. Otero County Processing Center (Management Training Corporation)

Ben James Owen from Britain, January 26, 2020. Baker County Detention Center (Baker County Sheriff’s Office)

On Monday, January 27, 2020, A 63-year-old Cuban man died in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody at a hospital in Florida. Name not released.

Hernandez Colula from Mexico, February 21, 2020 died in hospital after transfer from facility in Ohio

Maria Celeste Ochoa Yoc de Ramirez from Guatemala, March 8, 2020 Prairieland Detention Facility (LaSalle Corrections)


People detained by CBP, Brownsville, TX in 2019

Across the country – indeed the world – people are being asked to shelter in place, avoid crowds and practice “social distancing” as the chief means to combat the spread of novel coronavirus/COVID-19. Every day major news outlets update total confirmed cases and the number of deaths. We are told to take this seriously – as we should – and all of our lives have been disrupted, routines changed, and sacrifices demanded of us.

And yet, for the Trump administration and its de-humanizing approach to immigration, the beat simply goes on with only minor adjustments. For example, though Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have sought to suspend deportation flights from the United States, the administration has made no public commitment to do so. Flights have slowed down, but at least one flight was conducted to Guatemala this week. Today Chad Wolf announced that deportation flights to Mexico would continue.

The administration has already helped create a public health crisis at the border with Mexico by forcing nearly 60,000 people to wait in Mexico while awaiting asylum hearings in makeshift immigration courts. Now, it seems, the administration is preparing to use the pretext of the coronavirus to deny everyone at the border asylum, indeed, any due process. In a proposed policy, anyone captured at the border will be summarily deported with no hearing. The final outlines of this “policy” have not been released. Clearly such a policy, if it were to be implemented, would lead to a rapid deterioration of conditions at the border.

ICE and Customs and Border Protection are lining up to get extra funds as the result of the $1 trillion emergency coronavirus bill being debated in congress right now. The bill includes money for CBP to build 9 quarantine facilities and for ICE to convert 4 facilities for quarantine. Such measures indicate no intention to release people – which would be the safest option. Obviously neither agency is a public health entity and have no business overseeing health quarantines of any kind. (Though no doubt “business” is what this is all about to begin with!)

Enforcement operations within the United States are supposed to “slow down” to discourage extra crowding in detention facilities, but as of now ICE has no intention of letting people out. This is completely the wrong approach. For people in detention and for those in jails and prisons around the country, their lives are at risk in the face of the usual indifference given to their fates. In the face of that indifference, we are going to keep talking about this until people are let out!


A photo from a Mississippi Health Department inspection shows bathroom sinks missing from the walls in Parchman prison in 2019. 
Mississippi State Department of Health

People who are incarcerated are not able to implement safety precautions consistent with what the rest of us are being told to do. Basic infection control methods, such as regular handwashing, are not available to many. Soap is not readily available, sinks are few and often unsanitary, and items like hand sanitizer are often denied inside jails because of alcohol content (though New York found it appropriate to have prisoners make hand sanitizer for others). In crowded facilities, it is difficult to segregate people who may be at risk. Access to medical services is substandard in the best of times. Social distancing is basically impossible. For these reasons and others, we and many others have been sounding the alarm that prisons, jails, and detention facilities are a ticking time bomb for the spread of novel coronavirus/COVID-19. It is not a matter of if, but simply when it is introduced. Once it happens, conditions will lead to a rapid spread that puts lives at risks: those incarcerated, the people who work at these facilities, and the surrounding community.

What this means is that people must be released from incarceration, as many as possible, as quickly as possible. For those in prisons and jails, this means the elderly, those nearing the end of their sentences, and anyone else in an at-risk category. Officials should engage in a review of other individual cases so that people can be released into non-custodial monitoring, or simply released, depending on their original sentences. Finally, of the 2 million people incarcerated in this country, over 500,000 have not even been convicted of a crime yet. They are sitting in local jails simply for the inability to pay bail. They should all be released immediately.

Thus far, officials are limiting visitations, and some localities around the country are negotiating releases, including Prince George’s County in Maryland, Mecklenberg County Jail in Mississippi, Travis County in Texas, and others. However, large scale releases have not occurred yet. Within the Federal Bureau of Prisons system, visitations are also being denied and officials have laid out screening protocols. In all, these responses are insufficient as preventative measures and are putting hundreds of thousands of peoples lives at risk.

In immigration detention facilities, the context of incarceration mirrors what many others are facing in prisons and jails. They face the same poor health systems and same unsanitary conditions. There is a difference, however.

People in immigration detention facilities are not there because they have committed a crime. They are in civil detention while the government decides whether they can stay in this country, or if they must leave. As such civil detention is not supposed to be punitive in nature. While some people in detention may have been convicted of a crime before being placed in detention, in those cases they have already completed their sentences in domestic facilities- in many cases years prior to detention. They are only in detention now because the U.S. government decided that non-citizens with criminal records can be deported. Some others may have been picked up by law enforcement and may or may not have committed a crime, but were transferred to ICE before going to court. Which means, they are in detention solely because they do not have official authorization to be in the country – or could not prove it when arrested. Finally, MOST are in detention for reasons that have nothing to do with criminal actions (suspected or otherwise). They are simply waiting for the government to decide whether they can stay. Today, this includes 6,000 people seeking asylum who have already passed credible fear interviews and should, by ICE’s own regulations, be released.

Precisely because immigrant detention is civil, not criminal, detention, all of these people can be released at the discretion of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s administration. ICE will demure and say they are required to enforce the law. However, the law allows them discretion. Again, immigrant detention is NOT criminal detention! The fact that ICE announcements emphasize the number of criminals detained is a smokescreen to conflate immigration and criminality in the public’s mind.

Importantly, the point is not that people in immigrant detention are more deserving of release than those in prisons and jails. To be clear, when we say #FreeThemAll, we mean it. The point is simply that the process requires no new authorizations. ICE can allow people to leave detention with a scheduled check-in at a future date, and can do this relatively quickly. They can save lives. The only impediment is the political posturing of this administration that maintains detentions as a means to deter others who might seek shelter in the United States.

We shared a tool kit from Detention Watch Network to help folks organize in their communities to demand the release of more people from detention. You can view that here. As before, we share some active, state based efforts, to FreeThemAll!

Florida ● Petition​ – Miami-Dade Community Call for Decarceration

● Petition – ​Urging Governor Hogan to issue an Executive Order for Marylanders in detention, jails, prisons, or interaction with law enforcement

●  Petition – ​No One Is Sentenced to Die From Coronavirus – Emergency Recommendations for MN’s Incarcerated

Ohio ●  Petition – ​Keep COVID-19 out of Ohio Jails, Prisons, and Courts 

Texas ●  RAICES letter to ICE Field Office Director​ ​- Daniel Bible (San Antonio Field Office) 

Washington ● Petition – ​Endorse an Abolitionist Public Health: #COVID19mutualaid demands to DOC & Governor Inslee

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ICE and CBP need to suspend detention and deportation operations

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Daily Dispatch

March 13, 2020

Yesterday, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network issued a five point statement on justice for immigrants and workers in response to the coronavirus and COVID-19. You can read the full statement and background here. The five points:

    1. STOP ICE and CBP :

Enact an immediate moratorium on all ICE and CBP enforcement (detentions and deportations) to allow families, communities, localities and states to develop and implement effective community-wide responses to this public health challenge. There is no greater way to exacerbate today’s crisis with ICE and CBP hell-bent on terrorizing communities, accelerating deportations, and increasing the detained population. Instead, funds and personnel should be reassigned and redeployed to CDC, FEMA, and other emergency needs.


Dismantle immigrant detention, concentration camps and programs such as MPP that exacerbate the public health dangers, and include a plan to return individuals to their families and receiving families. In response to COVID-19, other countries are proactively releasing thousands to their families. DHS was already unable to provide even basic sanitary conditions while deaths in their custody are mounting. Forcibly keeping tens of thousands in squalid conditions, while adding people despite the foreseeable consequences, is criminally negligent.


Emergency action plans for healthcare, testing, and vaccines must be freely available to all, including undocumented workers and families. From every level of government, healthcare entity, whether public or private, we must resist dehumanization in all of its forms, and proactively address and challenge racist exploitation of the pandemic. Stigmatizing individuals or excluding them from the US coronavirus response would constitute both a serious flaw in what can only be an “all hands on deck” social effort, and it would be a dark stain on the US society.


Policies on paid sick leave and unemployment insurance often exclude low wage immigrant workers whether explicitly due to legal status, or implicitly through requirements related to employer size and duration of employment. Worker protection policies must have broad coverage in order to protect all workers who most need it, especially in industries such as construction, restaurant, poultry, and others that rely on the labor of undocumented immigrant workers.


Safety net programs such as food stamps and unemployment insurance can be as inaccessible as airline bailouts to the undocumented and poorest. Immigrant workers and families should be able to access emergency aid programs without fear of retaliation or “public charge” repercussions. Immigrant worker and community organizations should be included in planning and implementation, to ensure that this relief reaches the community.

The statement is critically important. Any kind of compassionate response, indeed, effective response, would incorporate these points. ICE enforcement activities run the risk of discouraging people from seeking medical assistance. If incarcerated, enforcement and detention run grave risks of putting people at risk of exposure. The Guardian noted earlier this week. As “Doctors are concerned the spread of coronavirus to the US’s prison-like immigration detention centers is inevitable and will hit a system blighted by overcrowding and medical negligence.”  The report from the Guardian went on further:

The internal watchdog for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees CBP and Ice, warned last year of dangerous overcrowding at a border patrol processing facility, before the coronavirus outbreak. “We are concerned that overcrowding and prolonged detention represent an immediate risk to the health and safety not just of the detainees, but also DHS agents and officers,” the office of inspector general’s report said.

In December, US immigration officials blocked doctors from giving flu vaccines to detained migrant children, after at least three children in custody died from complications from the flu.

Dr Josiah Rich, an epidemiologist at Brown University, said one tool the US government has to prevent the spread of coronavirus is to release some of the 43,990 people in immigration detention, while their legal cases are being processed. People are held in these detention centers for civil immigration violations, not criminal charges, and the government can release them unless they are considered a danger to the community.

“If they don’t really need to be there, get them out of there,” Rich said. “Do we really need to expose them to additional health risks? And expose them to each other? and the staff?”

Which is to say, proceeding with business as usual on immigration enforcement not only exacerbates the injustices of the system, but increases public health risks. Yesterday, the government of Honduras decided to block deportation flights from Mexico. As of this writing, there was no decision on deportation flights from the United States. The problem, of course, is that there are very few cases of coronavirus throughout Latin America, and that exposure in and then deportation from the United States runs the risk of spreading it. The administration seems unconcerned. A jammed flight of 119 people were returned to Cuba last week.

Our immigrant enforcement system is quite simply a public health hazard at every step. On the streets enforcement is discouraging people from seeking health services. In detention, they run an even higher risk of infection and/or spreading disease. If deported, cross border transmission of disease is accelerated. It is unnecessary and unjust to treat people this way. 

It is also dangerous to everyone.

So, we join in the call for a suspension of enforcement operations. Let people and their communities reset, and take care of themselves. It is ultimately better for everyone. 

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Prisoners making coronavirus supplies and updates from the border

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Daily Dispatch

March 12, 2020

Inmates of Hong Kong’s Lo Wu prison have been asked to produce 2.5m face masks a month. Photograph: Alex Hofford/EPA

We discussed on Monday how people who are incarcerated, in prisons and in immigration detention centers (which are basically prisons), are particularly vulnerable to the spread of infectious diseases. In spite of this, the Department of Homeland Security has done little to offer guidance about protective measures in detention facilities during the current concern about the spread of COVID-19. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, and state and local department of justices have issued guidelines and new intake procedures, but none of these precautions can make up for the dehumanizing reality of incarceration in this country. Indeed, in many prisons soap can be difficult to find and hand-sanitizer is often banned because of its alcohol content.  

And yet, as the Guardian reports today, people imprisoned in New York state have now been tasked with producing hand sanitizer, while prisoners in China try to meet the exploding demand for surgical/face masks. In China,

[w]omen inmates at the Lo Wu prison in Hong Kong have reportedly been asked to work night shifts to make 2.5m face masks a month after a huge rise in demand according to Reuters.

Female prisoners in Lo Wu prison are paid around HK$800 (£80) a month for round-the-clock production, significantly under Hong Kong’s minimum wage.

“This is an exploitation and another form of modern slavery,” said Shiu Ka-chun, a lawmaker who has been campaigning for prisoners’ rights.

Here in the United States, the Governor of New York has turned to prisoners to fill in the gap in production for hand sanitizer, as people clear shelves in grocery stores.

On Monday the governor of New York announced the state will also be using prison labour to produce 100,000 gallons of hand sanitiser for schools, prisons, transportation systems and other government agencies.

Governor Andrew Cuomo announced in a press conference on Monday that the production of the hand sanitiser was in response to shortages due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Around the globe, prisons have been the focus of concern. In China, an outbreak of coronavirus infected up to 500 prisoners and staff even as new cases were declining in the general population two weeks ago. In Italy, protective measures, especially limiting family visits, led to riots in which at least 7 people have died. Italy’s prison system is notoriously overcrowded. The potential for COVID-19 to spread in such contexts is significant. In Iran, 70,000 prisoners were tested for coronavirus and then bonded out if clear to alleviate crowding in prisons and the potential for the virus to spread. In the United States, prisoners are being forced to make 100,000 gallons of hand sanitizer for other people to use. 

Other Updates…

At the Greece Border

We discussed the situation on the border between Turkey and Greece last week, as Turkey’s President, Erdogan announced that he would no longer prevent refugees and asylum seekers from leaving Turkey. Since that announcement tens of thousands of refugees have gathered at the border between Turkey and Greece, and the situation has become quite tense. According to a report from Al Jazeera, “Greek security forces have used tear gas and water cannon to stop people from entering. Athens has suspended asylum applications for a month and said it prevented more than 42,000 people illegally entering the EU over the past two weeks.”

Meanwhile, people captured by the Greek Coast Guard over the lat 10 days are being held on a ship, and denied asylum protections. From Human Rights Watch:

“The refusal to allow people in its custody to seek asylum and the open threat to send them back to their persecutors flies in the face of the legal obligations Greece has agreed to and the values and principles it claims to represent,” said Bill Frelick, refugee and migrants rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Greece should immediately reverse this draconian policy, properly receive these people in safe and decent conditions, and allow them to lodge asylum claims.”

Video from the ship provided by an asylum seeker from Syria. 

Supreme Court Allows Remain in Mexico Policy to continue

From the Washington Post:

The Supreme Court on Wednesday said the Trump administration may continue its “Remain in Mexico” policy for asylum seekers while lower-court challenges continue, after the federal government warned that tens of thousands of immigrants massed at the southern border could overwhelm the immigration system.

The justices reversed a decision of a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which had ordered the policy be suspended Thursday on parts of the border. Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the only noted dissenter.

The Trump administration had warned the justices of a dire situation without their intervention.

“Substantial numbers of up to 25,000 returned aliens who are awaiting proceedings in Mexico will rush immediately to enter the United States,” Solicitor General Noel Francisco wrote in a brief. “A surge of that magnitude would impose extraordinary burdens on the United States and damage our diplomatic relations with the government of Mexico.”

The program — officially known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP — is among the tools the Trump administration has used to curb mass migration from Central America and elsewhere across the southern U.S. border.

In the 13 months it has been in place, the government said 60,000 migrants have been sent back into Mexico to await their U.S. asylum hearings, part of an effort to limit access to United States and to deter people from attempting the journey north.

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Florida Detention Center Quarantined, ICE Seattle Office Shut: COVID-19 and Immigration #2

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Daily Dispatch

March 11, 2020

Concerns about possible COVID-19 exposure at the Seattle Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office has led to its closure. From ICE:

Out of an abundance of caution, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement – Enforcement and Removal Operations (ICE-ERO) has temporarily closed its Seattle Field Office after an employee from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) exhibited flu-like symptoms after possible exposure to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). ICE-ERO recommends anyone who visited the Seattle Field Office, located at 12500 Tukwila International Boulevard, on or after Feb. 24 and develops flu-like symptoms should begin a self-quarantine immediately and contact local health authorities for further guidance.

Interestingly, while ICE was acting out of an “abundance of caution,” the Department of Justice put its entire unsanitized foot in its mouth yesterday by demanding that judges operating under the Executive Office for Immigration Review remove COVID-19 prevention posters from their courtrooms. Only to then back-track once the judge’s union made the order public. The backstory is illuminating. For years the union that represents immigration judges has been critical of Department of Justice rules impacting case loads. This critical posture has only grown under Trump’s DOJ, as caseloads have increased dramatically, leading the administration to establish annual quotas for judges, while also limiting judges discretion to clear their dockets. As the criticism from judges has increased, the administration has even moved to have the union nullified. 

Add pandemic and stir. Judges (like basically everybody) have grown frustrated with a lack of direction from the Department of Justice concerning COVID-19 prevention in their courts, and so unilaterally took the step of putting up posters in court waiting areas that had been distributed by the CDC. The posters outline symptoms of COVID-19 and preventative steps. The Department of Justice, which oversees immigration courts, directed court staff to take them down, seemingly, out of spite. Making clear who is in charge, acting chief immigration judge Christopher A. Santoro told court administrators

“This is just a reminder that immigration judges do not have the authority to post, or ask you to post, signage for their individual courtrooms or the waiting areas…Per our leadership, the CDC flyer is not authorized for posting in the immigration courts. If you see one (attached), please remove it. Thank you.”

Ultimately, the DOJ backed off because the email was sent out to reporters by a representative of the judges’ union, and well….once some sunlight was put on the directive, it did not look very good. 

Meanwhile, people held in immigrant detention in Florida have been quarantined out of concern for COVID-19 exposure. We wrote Monday about concerns that ICE and Customs and Border Protection were not making adequate preparations for those incarcerated in their custody. Both departments have horrible track records when it comes to the provision of health services, and thus no one is surprised that they seem unprepared. CBP did put out instructions to make more masks available. As far as anyone can tell, ICE has done nothing (though agency spokespeople continue to officially declare their concern and commitment for the people in “their care” when they issue press releases about someone who died). Back to Florida, where things are getting very real:

An ongoing quarantine in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in South Florida has raised serious questions about the agency’s preparedness for an outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

Several immigrants are being held in a special ward at the Glades County Detention Center and have been barred from receiving visitors and eating with other detainees. Last week, an undetermined number of quarantined detainees with “flu-like symptoms” were allegedly moved from the facility to a hospital to undergo testing for COVID-19, according to an attorney familiar with the situation.

Heriberto Hernandez, an immigration lawyer in Palm Beach County, represents Isaac Santos-Mojica, one of the quarantined detainees who has been providing updates from within the detention center. Santos-Mojica, originally from El Salvador, was placed under quarantine more than a week ago and says he has no idea when it will end.

Hernandez learned of the quarantine March 2 after driving two hours from his office to the Glades County Detention Center, which is in a remote area west of Lake Okeechobee. There he was informed by a jail official that Santos-Mojica was being held in the facility’s medical ward and would not be allowed to receive visitors. Hernandez, who had hoped to prepare for his client’s upcoming immigration court hearing, pressed for more information. Jail officials eventually confirmed Santos-Mojica had been quarantined for “flu-like symptoms” but did not offer any other details, Hernandez says. He spoke with his client over the phone later that evening but has not heard from him since.

It is too early to know if “exposure” will become “confirmed case.” But it is worth pointing out that the facility in question is a local jail run by the sheriffs’ office with a contract to hold detainees for ICE. There is no reference to any kind of federal policy about how to proceed. When will there be one?

Several articles have come out in the last couple of days about the impact of Trump’s immigration’s policies on public health in general and on preventative measures to contain COVID-19. Wendy Parmet of Northwestern University School of Law published an opinion piece on STAT last week. The main  thrust is that public charge rule implementation is leading to people withdrawing from Medicaid and otherwise opting out of health care services for fear of being labeled a “public charge.” In addition, the administration has refused to issue a clear directive from the Department of Homeland Security that it will not engage in enforcement actions near health centers and hospitals. The failure to clearly state that health facilities would be off limits for immigration enforcement – coupled with this administration’s willingness to engage in enforcement at hospitals – could well lead people who need screening to not get it. The Trump administration’s maintenance of the Remain in Mexico policy is also forcing people into unsanitary, crowded conditions, and could well lead to the spread of any number of diseases.

The Center for American Progress is pressing the administration on the need to declare health care centers “enforcement free zones.”

According to a letter by more than 800 public health and legal experts, one important step that the Trump administration could take to ensure that all people in the United States have the ability to seek necessary medical care—regardless of immigration status—is to issue a formal statement assuring the public that health care facilities will be “immigration enforcement-free zones” for the duration of the outbreak. Such a statement would be appropriate—and, indeed, entirely expected—under any circumstance, but it is particularly important in light of the current administration’s track record on immigration.

Echoing the call of these experts, lawmakers in both the House and Senate have urged the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—specifically U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—to suspend all immigration enforcement actions at or near hospitals or other medical facilities. Additionally, lawmakers have demanded that CBP and ICE formally announce this suspension to the public, consistent with historical practices taken during national disasters and other public health emergencies.

We’ll see if the reality of a global pandemic will move this administration to adjust course for the sake of keeping people healthy. At the moment, however, Trump seems unable to manage much other than directing people to the website of the Centers for Disease Control. Good advice – but not much of strategy.

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Detention Kills

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Daily Dispatch

March 10, 2020

On Sunday, March 8, Maria Celeste Ochoa Yoc de Ramirez, a 22 year-old woman from Guatemala died while in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She was the eighth person to die this year in ICE custody; the first woman. Ochoa had been picked up by border patrol on September 4 near Hidalgo, Texas. She was transferred to ICE custody two days later and held at El Valle Detention Facility in Raymondville, TX. According to Buzzfeed – which first reported her death – she ended up at a detention facility in Oklahoma for some time. 

Ochoa filed a claim for asylum, and on October 8, was granted a hearing following an interview in which she established a credible fear of persecution if returned to Guatemala. According to ICE’s historic operating guidelines, at this point she should have been released until her hearing date. She had no criminal record and family in the United States willing to sponsor her. Under the current administration she was detained anyway. [As of February 29, there were 38,537 people in ICE custody; of these 6,942 have established a credible fear of torture or persecution.] 

On February 7, Ochoa had an emergency gallbladder surgery and was returned to detention on February 10. Three days later she was transferred to a Prairieland Detention Center in Alvarado, Texas.  Prairieland Detention Center is one of ICE’s newer facilities in Texas, opened in 2017. It is managed by LaSalle Corrections, a private corporation.

On February 18, Ochoa was then taken to a hospital, later transferred to a medical center in Fort Worth where she remained until her death.  Her cause of death, according to ICE’s press release, was “autoimmune hepatitis, complicated by septic shock and acute liver failure.” She died from an infection related to her surgery. 

Given the history of ICE facilities’ lack of medical attention and denial of, and/or delayed access to care, there is little doubt the treatment she received following her surgery was inadequate. However, whatever the investigations undertaken find, we can say with certainty, that Maria Celeste Ochoa Yoc de Ramirez is dead as a direct result of this administration’s decision to hold her in detention.

Ochoa’s death marks the 8th death in detention thus far this fiscal year (since October 1, 2019). This is equivalent to the total number of people who died all of last year in ICE custody. Since the all time peak of the daily average number of people in detention, which reached 55,000 in August of 2019, detention numbers have been declining. Though likely a temporary trend (the administration is requesting funding for 60,000 daily detention beds in its FY 2021 budget proposal), the reduction in numbers has not been met with an improvement in conditions. Of the 8 people to die this year, 3 have been asylum seekers.

The second person to die this year was Roylan Hernandez-Diaz. Hernandez-Diaz was from Cuba and was seeking asylum in the United States. The Associated Press released a story today detailing the investigation into his case, and recounting his 2 year journey to reach the United States from Cuba. Hernandez-Diaz died from an apparent suicde on October 15, 2019 at the Richwood Correctional Facility – also run by LaSalle Corrections. He had been detained for almost 9 months beyond his credible fear interview, and was put in isolation after declaring his intent to protest his ongoing detention through a hunger strike. He was dead five days later. 

You can read the full story on Hernandez-Diaz case here.

Our summary of other cases so far this year.

In Memoriam

Nebane Abienwi, from Cameroon, October 1, 2019. Otay Mesa Detention facility (CoreCivic). 

Roylan Hernandez-Diaz, from Cuba, October 15, 2019, Richwood Correctional Facility (Lasalle Corrections)

Anthony Oluseye Akinyemi from Nigeria, December 21, 2019. Worcester County Jail

Samuelino Pitchout Mavinga from France, December 29, 2019. Otero County Processing Center (Management Training Corporation)

Ben James Owen from Britain, January 26, 2020. Baker County Detention Center (Baker County Sheriff’s Office)

On Monday, January 27, 2020, A 63-year-old Cuban man died in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody at a hospital in Florida.

Hernandez Colula from Mexico, February 21, 2020 died in hospital after transfer from facility in Ohio   

Maria Celeste Ochoa Yoc de Ramirez from Guatemala, March 8, 2020 Prairieland Detention Facility (LaSalle Corrections)

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Incarceration and COVID-19

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Daily Dispatch

March 9, 2020

The United States has the largest prison population on the planet. Though the number of people incarcerated has been falling over the last five years, there are still close to 2 million people in federal and state prisons, county and local jails, and in the 200 + detention facilities run by Immigrant and Customs Enforcement and border detention facilities run by Customs and Border Protection. People who are incarcerated are at a much higher risk of infectious diseases than the general population. Prisons are overcrowded, sanitary conditions are often extremely poor, and access to health services is limited, especially emergency health services that require moving people out of prisons for proper treatment. Incidents of denial of care and delays in getting needed treatment for those incarcerated is well documented throughout the prison system. Private prisons have received the most scrutiny in this regard. However, they hold a relatively small number of the people in state and local prisons and jails, and a declining number  – approximately 10% – of those in federal prison. In detention facilities run by ICE, however, private contractors oversee the incarceration of nearly 75% of immigrant detainees. Conditions in publicly run facilities are not much better, and increasingly many public facilities contract with private firms for the delivery of health services anyway. In short, the systemic reality of incarceration is detrimental to the health of those imprisoned, the people working at the facilities, and the broader public. These environmental problems are often magnified by incentives to keep costs as low as possible – which translates into a reduction of services. 

As a result of these conditions, the spread of infectious disease is a recurring problem in prisons, raising concerns about the possibility of COVID-19 spreading in prisons and detention facilities. Preventive measures thus far are limited:

After the swine flu outbreak in 2009, which infected hundreds of prisoners across the country, most prison systems did create pandemic preparation plans.

Before worries of the coronavirus, the Philadelphia Prisons Department had a medical quarantine for inmates coming into its system, which houses about 4,600 inmates. New detainees go through a medical screening and are segregated for at least 10 to 14 days while they wait for the results of any medical tests, said James Garrow, a spokesman for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.

The screening has since been updated to include COVID-19, not only in Philadelphia, but also in Dallas, Houston, Miami, Chicago and other cities. No prisons have yet obtained the medical kits to test for the virus, however. [emphasis added]

The Federal Bureau of Prisons has likewise created an interview-based intake tool to screen people for possible exposure to COVID-19 and for symptoms related to the disease. The window for the effectiveness of such screening, however, is closing, as the disease moves into communities and passes from person to person; questions about foreign travel will become less relevant. COVID-19 test kits must be made available to prison authorities in adequate numbers.

Meanwhile, as of Friday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement had not announced any new methodology for screening and protection inside immigration detention centers. Customs and Border Patrol indicated only that they were screening for people who had been to China or Iran within the last 14 days, and distributing facemasks to people who are symptomatic, to be referred to medical personal for further testing. From the National Memo:

“CBP needs to be doing more than just handing out masks,” Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), a staunch critic of Trump’s immigration policies, said in an email this week. CBP, she added, “should think about the role it is playing in actually exacerbating this pandemic because they are putting Donald Trump’s politically motivated war on immigrants above the actual needs of the country and the world.”

The conditions within immigrant detention centers have been notoriously poor, and officials reluctant to take responsibility. Customs and Border Patrol had to be sued simply to provide mattresses and decent food, and to stop the practice of placing immigrants in freezing rooms. ICE facilities have repeatedly come under criticism for the failure to provide basic medical care. We reported just last week about Cibola County Corrections Center being forced to transfer people with medical conditions to a new facility after repeatedly failing to correct deficiencies in the delivery of care. This is a problem going back to 2008, at least, when Cibola was a federal prison. Indeed, CoreCivic lost the contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons to operate Cibola CCC due to poor health management in 2016, only to get a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement 9 months later to use the facility as an immigration detention center. Recent events indicate that little has improved there; but the Cibola case is hardly unique.

In the spring of last year, there was a mumps outbreak in detention facilities around the country. Despite this, the administration has done nothing to mitigate health risks inside detention facilities.

The Trump administration has declined to address the problem head on. In December, Border Patrol and the Department of Homeland Security came under fire after officials refused to offer flu shots to migrant detainees, even when they were offered at no charge by a group of doctors.

“Of course Border Patrol isn’t going to let a random group of radical political activists show up and start injecting people with drugs,” a DHS spokesperson tweeted at the time.

As the New York Times noted, the CDC had warned earlier last year that immigrants 6 months and older should be given the flu vaccine “at the earliest point of entry” to prevent the spread of such communicable diseases while in custody.

Experts worry that detention facilities like the ones maintained by CBP and ICE are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks like COVID-19 due to crowded conditions, especially as border officials are slow to act.

“Detention facilities are breeding grounds for infection,” Wendy Parmet, director of the Center for Health Policy and Law at Northeastern University School of Law, said in an email this week.

On Friday, a coalition working to shutdown the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, issued an alert demanding that officials take steps to mitigate the threat of COVID-19. Included below is their alert, with numbers and call script for people in Washington:

La Resistencia is one of many organizations in the Shutdown NWDC Coalition that holds concerns about the health of those detained in the Northwest Detention Center, including the recent danger of Coronavirus Infection (COVID-19).

Past outbreaks of mumps and varicella have spread throughout the detention center, and detained people consistently raise concerns about the everyday medical neglect in the detention center. We know it is inhumane to keep detaining people at NWDC, and to transfer more people so close to the epicenter of the Coronavirus outbreak in the United States.

Call #1: Contact Information: Tacoma Pierce County Public Health Department Director Anthony Chen, (253) 798-6411

Hi, my name is _____, and I am a Washington resident who is concerned about the impact of Coronavirus on people who are detained at the Northwest Detention Center. Can we count on Tacoma Pierce County Health Department to conduct and release results of an immediate in-person inquiry and on-site inspection at NWDC to find out if cases of COVID-19 exist there, how they are being handled and communicated about, and how prevention measures beyond posters telling people to cover their cough are being taken?

Thank you for your time. 

Call #2: Contact Information: Northwest Detention Center: (253) 396-1611 and Seattle ICE Field Office: (206) 835-0650

Hi, my name is _____, and I am a Washington resident who is concerned about the impact of Coronavirus on people who are detained at or being transferred to the Northwest Detention Center. We are demanding that ICE immediately releases all detained people with compromised immune systems and puts a moratorium on all detention and transfers. We are also demanding that ICE shuts down the Northwest Detention Center. Can we count on ICE to prevent detained people from dying during this pandemic by taking these actions? 

Call #3: Contact information: Tacoma Deputy Mayor Keith Blocker, (253) 591-5470

Hi Deputy Mayor Blocker, 

My name is ______ and I am a Washington resident who is concerned about the impact of Coronavirus on people who are detained at or being transferred to the Northwest Detention Center. We know past outbreaks of Mumps and Varicella in the detention center have been handled poorly, and that Geo Group consistently medically neglects every person detained at NWDC. This is evidence of NWDC being a chronic public nuisance. Can we count on you to lead the Tacoma City Council in declaring NWDC a chronic public nuisance? 

Thank you for your time. 

As we discussed on Friday, the administration is threatening a new, massive removal operation in which they “flood the streets” with agents to arrest as many unauthorized immigrants as possible. The administration has made such threats before, with little evidence of substantially increased enforcement over the normal abusive levels (150,000 to 200,000 people are detained by ICE every year as a result of internal removal operations, this is in addition to people transferred from Customs and Border Protection). But if the administration moves on the scale they are threatening, it will mean adding many thousands more people to detention facilities, with inadequate screening and poor medical care. They are courting disaster. 

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