The Quixote Center works with, and is the fiscal sponsor in the United States for the Franciscam Network on Migration. The network coordinates the activity of shelters in Central America, Mexico and the United States that serve migrant communities – principally, though not exclusively, from Central America. Our work with the Franciscan Network has also brought us into coalition work with Franciscans International and other groups that address multilateral issues concerning migration as well. Below we offer a few updates from this work.
Assistance for shelters in Honduras
Following hurricanes Eta and Iota, which both struck Honduras (and Nicaragua) within two weeks of each other, and followed nearly identical paths, Franciscan shelters in Tegucigalpa began offering services to people who were suffering from trauma. This led to a more formal program to mobilize therapists, and therapy students from universities in the country to provide therapy services to children suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and related anxiety.
In December, the Quixote Center facilitated delivery of $4,500 to support this effort. If you would like to offer support to the Network for this and projects like it, you can do that here. Having funds available to meet critical needs is one of the key ways we can support migrants and mitigate the conditions that often give rise to migration in the first place.
The Franciscan Network is looking for volunteers to help staff shelters and other sites in Mexico (Frontera Digna in Piedras Negras and La 72 in Tenosique), Honduras (Tegucigalpa) and the United States (Migrant Center in New York City). Since Spanish is necessary for nearly all of the sites, the application form and information are only available in Spanish. For several opportunities (including NYC), room and board is not provided, so one must either be local or have access to room and board in the area.
You can find out more information, and application details here.
Mexican Franciscans offer online course on migration
The Committee on Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation of the Order of Friars Minor in Mexico is sponsoring a nine-part course on both theoretical and practical concerns related to the situation of migrants. The course will be offered entirely in Spanish on Wednesday nights from January 20-March 17, from 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET. If you are interested, more details are available here and you can register here.
On Monday, November 16, Hurricane Iota struck Nicaragua about 15 miles from where Hurricane Eta made landfall 13 days prior.
As with Eta, the government mobilized the army and police forces to evacuate people from the coast prior to Iota – tens of thousands of people. This no doubt saved many lives. However, wind and rain took its toll, as rivers overflowed and hillsides collapsed. Four people died in a mudslide in the Los Roques sector of the municipality of El Tuma-La Dalia. Another six people died in flooding in Carazo and Wiwili. Alliance for Global Justice’s NicaNotes has more detail here. In total, the government reports 21 deaths from Hurricane Iota.
Among the clear immediate and longer term effects of the storms is food insecurity. Crop loss in areas around the country is enormous. For example, the Humboldt Center estimates:
In the municipalities of Bilwi, Prinzapolka and the Mining Triangle, there were average losses of 90% in the crops of rice, beans, musaceae (bananas and plantains) and tubers, among others.
In the departments of Matagalpa, Madriz, Nueva Segovia and Estelí: Major losses are reported for beans, rice, vegetables, citrus fruits, tobacco and coffee. In the production of basic grains, losses are estimated between 60% and 90%; a 20% loss in coffee production.
In the municipality of San Juan del Sur in Rivas, the estimate is that 100% of corn, beans and rice crops were lost due to floods and strong gusts of winds.
Preliminary estimates from Nicaragua’s government are that “the total cost of damages from Hurricanes Eta and Iota could amount to USD $400 million, approximately 3% to 4% of national GDP. Assessments from Hurricane Eta alone indicated USD $178m worth of damage to homes, public services, infrastructure, businesses, agriculture, fishing and more, and Iota had a greater radius and intensity. Treasury Minister, Iván Acosta, said that the government’s priority now is protecting the lives and wellbeing of the citizens, but a full evaluation will be carried out as soon as possible.”
Over the coming months we will be focused on providing support for emergency response and longer-term reconstruction assistance. We will also be asking people to speak out on areas of U.S. policy that can have an impact in Nicaragua and other countries in Central America. This is what we are focused on now:
Funding: The Quixote Center will be coordinating emergency response with our long time partner, the Institute of John XXIII. Over the next few weeks our focus is on the purchase of food and hygiene kits and delivery of these items to the coast.
FOOD PACKAGE CONTENT – US $ 34.00
Rice 5 KG
Beans 5 KG
Oil 2 Ltr.
Sugar 2.5 KG
Oats 4 Bag of 1 Lbr.
Maseca 2 Bags of 1 Lbr.
Maggi Soup 4 Bags
Spaghetti 4 Bags
PERSONAL PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT – US $ 20.00
Advocacy: The U.S. government must immediately halt all deportations to Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. The only country where there has been a halt in deportations is Honduras, and only because the airport in San Pedro Sula is literally under water.
Representative Nydia Valezquez (D-NY) has introduced legislation to extend Temporary Protected Status to Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. The Hurricane Eta Relief Act of 2020 would suspend most deportations to these three countries – though clearly this faces an uphill battle with the current Senate and President. You can call the Congressional switchboard and ask your member of the House to support this legislation: 202- 224-3121.
The Quixote Center serves as the fiscal sponsor for the Franciscan Network on Migration’s fundraising activities in the United States. We participate in the Network’s discussions on advocacy and work closely with Network coordinator Lori Winther to craft strategies concerning communications about network activities. Below are updates directly from the shelters in Mexico. If you are able to support this work you can make a secure, tax- deductible donation to the Franciscan Network on Migration here.
La 72, House for Migrants Tenosique, Tabasco, Mexico
During the first months of the pandemic, La 72 had institutionalized various health and protection measures for migrants, staff and volunteers. Since mid-October, the shelter has coordinated a re-opening with certain precautionary measures to ensure the protection of the people inside.
With the collaborating organization Medicos Sin Fronteras, they have determined that they can have up to 150 people in the shelter at a time. They monitor the count of people entering (20-30 a day) and those leaving the shelter. In special cases, they receive more than the 150 limit but try to keep the number consistent.
Everyone has to wear masks, and there are new guidelines for grooming, hand washing, and the use of antibacterial gel. People who want to go out can only do so twice a week to go shopping, to eat, to the doctor, etc. Those who go to work can do it daily with permission. They check every person who passes through the gate for temperature. Any suspected cases are transferred to what is normally the juvenile module for quarantine and COVID testing. To date, they have had one verified COVID case and 3 suspected cases.
There are also 200-250 people living on the court next to the house. They do not want to enter the shelter due to movement restrictions. La 72 offers them support for their migration cases as refugees or for suffering human rights violations, etc. and 100-150 can enter to sleep in the chapel between 8:30 pm until 6:30 am.
One of the changes that has affected migration the most is that the train, sometimes called “La Bestia,” stopped operating since the end of August due to the conversion of the routes for the new tourist “Mayan Train.” People now come walking or hitchhike in cars. They have established new routes from Petén, through Salto de Agua and Palenque (there is more information in the Casa Betania report on this below). UNICEF is carrying out a study on the impact of the construction of the routes for the Mayan Train, and has interviewed local and indigenous communities, and the different houses and shelters. They are seeing a lack of respect for indigenous people as well as environmental and social impacts.
Other impediments: At the moment it is also impossible to go through Veracruz or Monterrey on foot. There are many INM (National Institute of Migration) checkpoints there and people are deported. They are not seeing many people traveling south either, because Mexico is deporting them. What you see is the perseverance and tenacity of the people. They need to migrate and the obstacles don’t matter. However, more people every day are seeing that Mexico will be their destination. They end up staying as refugees in the big cities of northern Mexico.
Casa Betania Santa Martha, Salto de Agua, Chiapas, Mexico
The parish of San Fernando de Guadalupe has been cared for by the Missionaries of the Divine Word (SVD) for 33 years. Currently, in the Casa Betania-Santa Martha Project, five SVDs of five different nationalities work alongside four Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Mary (FMM) currently from Congo, the Philippines, and Mexico. The house is in the middle of Palenque and Villahermosa; the municipal seat is Salto de Agua. Normally, the border closest to the house is called “La Técnica.” About 70% of the migrants crossed this border nearby.
Right now the train, “La Bestia”, has stopped circulating on this route, people are entering more through El Ceibo and El Naranjo. Before, people came and got on the train between these borders and Tenosique, now they have to walk the long distance between these points, and Casa Betania is on the route. As a result the shelter has experienced a huge increase in numbers. Since August it has been increasing again, and now they are receiving around 100 people a day. The majority of the population are Hondurans (85%), Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, a few Cubans and Venezuelans. Some Africans have arrived.
The pandemic caused them many challenges; they heard that many houses were closing due to the pandemic. But seeing the migrants, the faces, hearing the stories, the team decided to keep the house open. 10 or 15 people arrived a day during the first phase of the epidemic. Most are male, but a variety of groups are arriving – women, children, unaccompanied minors, whole families, single girls, etc.
People can stay for 3 days. But they always try to personalize the situation of each one, for example if they have a disease or need a procedure, they can stay longer. Right now they have a family that was robbed asking for shelter and they are also being given additional time.
The relationship between the people has been, above all, positive. At first there were comments on social networks questioning the authorities about why they kept letting the migrants stay, always blaming the migrants for any bad that happens. But there were more people supporting them. Right now there is no formal opposition blocking their passage. The health authorities set rules for them, for example, once the migrants enter the shelter, that they do not leave, that they are not entering and leaving the shelter. Migrants, above all, do not believe in COVID, or it is a denial above all the complex situation they live, their dreams, their struggles to migrate. Well, it makes them live this denial. And so there is a bit of resistance facing the requirements, the use of the mask, the hand washing, the gel. They try to disinfect cutlery, tables, surfaces very well, and there are people who do not accept the value of these measures. But it is explained to people, raising awareness, and little by little they accept that this is the new normal.
About contagion, each person who arrives takes their temperature. If they suspect a contagion, there is an area reserved for quarantine. Currently there is a person who is positive. A couple arrived, and the young man had a fever. They were immediately taken to the hospital for an exam, and the boy tested positive. The two are isolated.
One of the sisters speaks to the women about violence on the road and hospital care for migrants who have been raped on the road.
A great challenge is that in this municipality, the authorities are not very competent to help migrants. When they need paperwork, they have to move to Palenque. It implies a day of work for the transfer.
Casa Betania Needs: They critically need volunteers. With only 4 or 5 people they are serving 100+ per day. Volunteers are available to live within the limitations they have there. There is a room in the house of a woman from the town, and the women volunteers stay in this house. The men are in a space in the shelter. They have to be of legal age, willing to work with migrants, who can follow the general rules of no drugs, no alcohol, no violence.
Materially, they especially need flip-flops for the bathroom.
Comedor San Francisco de Asís Mazatlán, Mexico
In the dining room that they operated in the parish before the pandemic, they still offer showers, distribute food (water, whey, fruit, tuna, etc.) in bags, and in special cases migrants can sleep there or they can serve lunches, as before, according to the health code.
The flow of migrants is increasing again to 9 to 10 migrants per day, some to the north, others deported. Most of the migrants continue north. They are a mix of Venezuelans and Central Americans, but very few Haitians and others at this time. They still cannot fully open with volunteers, for the safety of the volunteers.
The migrants stay under a bridge near the train tracks. Or they just eat, bathe, and leave. The INM sometimes asks for support from the parish or the DIF (National System for Integral Family Development), for people with physical disabilities, etc.
Pre-pandemic, a woman in the community offered to donate a house to better host the migrants. However, the house is not suitable for the men who make up the majority of the migrants who pass this route. The house is far from the parish and would be without an administrator on-site. There is not much space and everyone would be too crowded. There is no patio, it is completely enclosed. Sometimes there are arguments or problems. There is a lot of drug trafficking in the area, too, and they don’t have room for movement. People cannot be easily separated when tensions arise.
For these reasons, the friars plan to use the house to serve families or perhaps women, perhaps for two or three families at a time. Maybe use the house for medical care. In terms of legal paperwork, they already have right of use, but are awaiting deeds.
In other space, they plan to separate a section of the patio of their church, mainly to provide shade with a canopy (tin) roof and a large tree. There they could place cots, hammocks or mats for the men to sleep. There are two gates to the street. With a wall they will divide the areas between the parishioners and the migrants. This would give them more space for the migrants to relax and as Franciscans already live here, they would also be better supervised and supported.
They are presenting this plan for approval to their provincial government of the Franciscans at a meeting in Tijuana this month. If the plan is approved, a plan that involves blocking part of the entrance to the sanctuary from their worship space, they would need money to make these more basic plans. It would be better than what they have had, but not as good as what was originally proposed. The opportunity to buy the land where they hoped to build is no longer available.
The funds they obtained from the Central Mission of the Franciscans in Germany have been spent to cover food costs in recent months and they are running out of supplies. They are thinking of initiating a local campaign to collect more supplies.
Frontera Digna Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico
The Frontera Digna shelter is an institution that welcomes vulnerable migrants, refugees, and deportees. Due to the insecure situations that migrants experience, they arrive with an immense burden of incidents and cruelty that they have had to experience on the road and this shelter offers them relief: water so they can bathe, food, clothing, medicine. They receive spiritual support and care, nutritional assistance, and other accompaniment when required. We respond to the situations that each of them have, maintaining hope and strengthening.
In early 2020, staff at Frontera Digna were preparing a new “Compartiendo Esperanza” shelter exclusively for up to 80 women and children. In April, immigration authorities requested the use of the new shelter for 160 people in deportation proceedings from Mexico. You can read more about what happened here.
As we are very close to the border, people sometimes try to cross several times. There are helicopters, drones, dogs, sensors that detect movements, migrants even believe that when they turn on their phone, the sensors can detect them. However, they can cross and walk 3-6 days until the North American migration authorities capture and detain them, sometimes until they have lost everything along the way. We always hear, “I almost made it.” They try many times.
When they arrive with us, the deportees ask for food, clothes (sometimes they arrive in their prison suit or pajamas, flip flops). They ask to bathe and come very hungry. Sometimes they arrive dehydrated, in poor health, with traumas related to encounters with criminals, kidnappings, extortion, etc.
Temporarily closed for lodging, Frontera Digna served an average of 100 migrants every day before the COVID pandemic. Currently, they are providing pantry service, food and cleaning products and soaps, and follow up with pregnant women who are living in rented rooms. They also offered migrants the right to enter, rest a few hours and shower, but the municipality ordered them to only distribute food, bring clothes to wash, prohibiting others from entering the shelter.
There are migrants who are waiting for their asylum appointments in Nuevo Laredo, and many are arriving in Piedras Negras. They rent tiny rooms, now that the shelters are closed due to COVID. The person in charge of the INM who keeps the list to request asylum, reports that in the Piedras Negras detention center, around 160 deportees, are processed daily.
About the rented rooms, the police recently raided some buildings because the owners did not have the proper permits. The migrants were taken to detention even though some were awaiting asylum and had legal status in Mexico. They deported those who did not have papers to stay. They are constantly deporting people.
Three weeks ago Dawn Wooten, formerly a nurse at Irwin County Detention Center, came forward with accusations that a doctor had performed medically unnecessary hysterectomies on many women who were at the Irwin Center under the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Irwin is run by a private, for-profit company, LaSalle Corrections. From a story in Vice, “In interviews with Project South, a Georgia nonprofit, multiple women said that hysterectomies were stunningly frequent among immigrants detained at the facility. ‘When I met all these women who had had surgeries, I thought this was like an experimental concentration camp,’ said one woman, who said she’d met five women who’d had hysterectomies after being detained between October and December 2019. The woman said that immigrants at Irwin are often sent to see one particular gynecologist outside of the facility. ‘It was like they’re experimenting with their bodies.’”The Associated Press did a follow up investigation after these reports surfaced. They were not able to confirm all of Dawn Wooten’s accusations, but did find a pattern of issues including a lack of consent for surgeries and medical procedures performed by Dr. Mahendra Amin:An Associated Press review of medical records for four women and interviews with lawyers revealed growing allegations that Amin performed surgeries and other procedures on detained immigrants that they never sought or didn’t fully understand. Although some procedures could be justified based on problems documented in the records, the women’s lack of consent or knowledge raises severe legal and ethical issues, lawyers and medical experts said.Pramila Jayapal, Representative from Seattle, led a letter to the Department of Homeland Security signed by 170 members of Congress that demanded an investigation into these reports. In covering this story, The Guardianrecalled the history of forced sterilizations in the United States – something that is not exactly ancient history. “In the 1960s and 70s an increase in federal funding for reproductive health procedures combined with racist and anti-immigration sentiment led to “tens of thousands” of women of colour being sterilized, including Native Americans…And by the 1970s, a third of all women in Puerto Rico had undergone sterilization procedures, the majority of which were involuntary, as part of US attempts at ‘population control’….In California prisons, between 1997 and 2013 about 1,400 people were sterilized.”Alexandra Minna Stern, professor of history at the University of Michigan and director of the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab told The Guardian, “Anyone who’s studied the history of sterilization abuse would look at this detention center and say this is the kind of place where sterilization abuse is likely to occur because all of the conditions that enable such medical malfeasance and reproductive oppression, they’re all in place.”The allegations have brought all eyes onto the Irwin County Detention Center and LaSalle Corrections. However, the issue of medical neglect in ICE custody is a systemic issue. Two weeks ago two different House committee reports on ICE detention practices made this point. Both reports included damning evidence of a history of neglect and malpractice. The first report came from the House Committee on Homeland Security. Noting that “ICE appears to prioritize obtaining bed space over the wellbeing of detainees in its custody”, the Committee “discovered a concerning pattern of ICE contracting with facilities that are poorly equipped to meet ICE’s own detention standards. This includes facilities, particularly in Louisiana [home of LaSalle Corrections], that had a well-publicized history of abuses prior to contracting with ICE. It also includes those facilities that have had longstanding contracts with ICE but have demonstrated an inability to comply with standards that affect the health and safety of detainees even after being repeatedly called out for violating those standards by DHS’s own inspection processes.”The primary findings of the committee was that ICE’s oversight of private contractors was inadequate. Oversight was poorly conceived, advance warning was given of inspections, the contractors hired to do inspections were ill prepared, problems, when found, went uncorrected and contracts continued to be extended regardless of patterns of abuse. On medical neglect in particular, The Committee repeatedly heard from detainees that their medical complaints were frequently dismissed. The most common complaint was that, whatever the issue, detainees would be given common pain relievers unless the symptoms were emergent. At LaSalle, migrants described a system that depended on non-medically trained people to make health care decisions. For example, if a person was experiencing pain, the guard in the housing unit might tell them to wait to go to the doctor until the morning. Even if they made it to see health professionals, migrants at LaSalle described medical personnel making fun of their complaints. Migrants held at Otay Mesa also recalled being told to prioritize “one problem at a time” and not raise multiple concerns when visiting health professional. And they had to wait days for a trip to the hospital for treatment or examinations. Sixty Migrants at Adelanto similarly complained about having to wait months to receive medical care for medical issues. The second report came from the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. This report contained more recent developments, particularly regarding ICE’s medical neglect as it applies to COVID-19 prevention. The findings, however, were largely the same. ICE facilities fail to provide adequate medical services, and yet ICE continues to contract with the same companies. Commenting on a review of audits of detainee deaths, the Committee notes, “[t]hese documents reveal serious and widespread violations of ICE’s health and safety standards, negligent medical care, unsanitary living conditions, understaffing, poor record keeping, and critically delayed emergency care.” In relation to infectious diseases, the track record is truly damning: For example, in 2018 and 2019, an outbreak of the mumps infected nearly 900 detainees in 57 ICE detention facilities across 19 states. Documents also contain examples of improper treatment for tuberculosis, HIV, and in one case, an allegation of “grossly negligent” medical care when an ICE detainee died of meningitis in 2018.These persistent deficiencies could aggravate the spread of coronavirus in DHS facilities. ICE has confirmed more than 6,000 detainees and 45 ICE staff have been infected with coronavirus at over 95 detention facilities. Information obtained by the Committee shows that as of mid-July 2020, more than 600 GEO Group and CoreCivic employees working in at least 29 facilities also tested positive.Many ICE facilities, including those that house children, have had repeated sanitation problems, including dirty and moldy bathrooms, insufficient clean clothing, unsanitized dishes, dirty food preparation and service areas, and a lack of soap, toilet paper, paper towels, clean razors, and other hygiene items. During fiscal year 2020, twenty-one people have died in ICE custody. Eight of the eleven people who have died since May have died of COVID-19.Now what?So, over the last two weeks we’ve witnessed a damning whistleblower report on an ICE facility, alongside several follow up investigations supporting parts of this report, while exposing even more abuses. We’ve also seen two congressional committee reports that detail repeatedly how ICE is negligent in the care it provides. Further, the negligence in medical care has led to deaths, and the explosion of COVID-19 in its facilities. The reports this last week note that ICE private contractors are not held accountable. Indeed, the oversight regime in place now is a complete failure. I have no idea what it will take to move members of Congress to actually act. There is a bill circulating in the House, unlikely to make it out of committee within the time span left to this Congress. The Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act. The bill calls for minimizing the use of detention overall, phasing out of the use of contractors (private and governmental) in order to keep all detention facilities under one clear authority that is then tightly monitored based on a comprehensive set of standards. It was introduced last year. If not this bill, then something at least as comprehensive must be moved in the next Congress. This is not something that really needs to be studied any more. Detention is unnecessary, and private detention facilities are brutal. Period. We have known this for years. Enough is enough.
On Tuesday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that over the last month they arrested 2,000+ people as part of a massive national operation. Until recently, ICE picked up about 10,000 people a month anyway (a number that fell briefly to just over 5,000 in June as the result of the then acting director of ICE, Matthew Albence, reducing enforcement activity in the context of the coronavirus pandemic). The pandemic is still around, but Albence is now gone. When ICE engages in such large scale enforcement actions, ICE agents are more likely to pick up a lot of people who have not been convicted of any crimes. ICE’s own reporting indicates that only 50% of those they picked up in this latest operation had a criminal record, which means 50% did NOT. Below I try to parse some of the latest numbers, and critique ICE’s intentional misdirection about “criminal aliens.” We continue to demand that ICE #FreeThemAll; find out how you can get involved below.
In recent months, the percentage of “convicted criminals” in ICE custody has increased. This is because the closure of the border and Title 42 expulsions have dramatically reduced Customs and Border Protection transfers. As I wrote last week, people who are picked up at the border now are summarily expelled with no access to due process. From March through July the administration expelled 105,000 people in this way, all but 200 along the southern border. The result is less people being transferred into ICE’s detention network from the border, and thus a fall off in the number of people held in detention overall. People picked up at the border are far less likely to have a criminal record than those swept up in ICE raids or on detainers at the local jail. Thus, as the number of people being transferred from the border falls, the proportion of those in detention with a criminal record goes up.
Of course, even if the proportion of those with a “criminal conviction” is going up, the whole framework is misleading. The category of criminal activity responsible for the most removals is “traffic violation,” followed by “traffic violation with DUI.” Combined these categories represented over 140,000 charges compared to the 1,800 “homicides” in 2019. Indeed, traffic violations have been the biggest ticket item for years – beginning with the Bush administration’s crack down post 9-11. Which is to say, never in the history of ICE has serious criminal activity been the leading cause for removals. Never. This is not to say the driving drunk is no big deal – indeed, some of the “homicides” could be the result of drunk driving. The point is that the actual profile of criminal activity leading to removal is very different from the image ICE sells to the U.S. public in the guise of MS-13 foot soldiers and sex traffickers.
That said, some of the people picked up by ICE have committed crimes that most would consider serious. There are a couple of points to emphasize here. First, if someone has been convicted of a crime, by the time ICE gets a hold of them they have already served their sentence. The reason ICE is focused on them is NOT the crime itself, but their citizenship. If they were a citizen, with time served, they would just be going home. Indeed, people who end up in criminal removal may in fact be permanent residents, or otherwise legally present in the United States. However, because they are not a citizen, and now have a criminal record, they are deportable under Clinton-era immigration policy.
The second point is that the focus on criminality creates massive confusion about what is going on. No one in ICE custody is there to serve a criminal penalty. No one. ICE detention is administrative. People are being held while an immigration court, or administrative agency decides whether they can stay in this country or not. Some people are in detention because a determination has already been made that they cannot stay, and they are awaiting deportation. That is it. If they have previously been convicted of a crime, the sentence has already been served. If they have been charged, but not yet gone to trial, one cannot classify them as a criminal. Immigration detention is thus not making communities safer. Quite the opposite.
Admittedly, the number of people in ICE detention is way down – 21,000 now compared to 53,000 at the beginning of the fiscal year (Oct. 1, 2019). I explained last week this is because of the border closure reducing transfers into ICE custody, coupled with the fact that ICE keeps deporting people despite the inherent risks of spreading COVID-19 to other countries. 21,000 is still a huge number of people, however, and our long standing position that they should ALL be released stands. The risks of maintaining people in this carceral state are enormous. The New York Times recently published a detailed map, tracing coronavirus infections. The report included a segment on “clusters,” or concentrated areas where infection rates are high. Of the top 100 cluster sites, 90 are prisons, jails or detention centers (the other ten include nine meat processing plants, and one navy ship). ICE’s latest operation is thus irresponsible: Our carceral immigration system is a public health disaster, no one is made safer by putting more people into it.
Take Action: #FreeThemALL
It is clear that Trump is not changing course any time soon. But we still need to put pressure on the administration where we can. If you have not done so yet, you can send a message to your members of Congress asking them to support the Immigration Enforcement Moratorium Act here.
We also invite you to join in the National Days of Action being sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee and Detention Watch Network from September 9 – 13. You can register as a partner for these actions, check-out their organizing toolkit, and get more information here.
Twenty-one* people died in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody during fiscal year 2020 (Oct 1, 2019 to Sept 30, 2020). The number of people to die in ICE custody during the previous fiscal year was eight. At the same time the administration has shut down the border, slowed (though far from halted) internal removal operations, and continued to deport people, the number of people in ICE custody has fallen significantly since March. As of mid-September, ICE was holding 20,006 people in custody. The higher number of deaths, with fewer people incarcerated, translates into a spiraling mortality rate in ICE facilities.
The number of people in detention at the beginning of the fiscal year was approximately 53,000. There have been 177,391 book-ins since then. So, the “net” number of people to cycle through the system this fiscal year is 230,391. Which means, the mortality rate for people in ICE custody is 9.1/100,000 – or about 82% higher than themurder rate in the United States.
The people who have died this year come from all over the world, from Africa, Asia, Europe and throughout the Americas. It is a sobering reminder that the impacts of U.S. immigration policy reach everywhere. Four of the people who died were seeking asylum – two of whom had already passed credible fear interviews and remained detained anyway. One man, from Cameroon, died before he could be interviewed – taken off life support following a brain hemorrhage despite the wishes of family members that he remain on life support until someone could be with him. Another committed suicide a week after his appeal for asylum relief was denied. Overall, one-third (6) of those who died in custody committed suicide.
Of the eleven people to die since May 6, eight have died from COVID-19, though one other case is likely a COVID case – the person was never tested. All of these deaths involve people with known underlying conditions that make COVID-19 deadly, principally diabetes and in two cases the individuals were over 70 years of age. They would all be alive if ICE had followed recommendations to release people. Indeed, all of the people on this list would most likely be alive today if ICE had simply pursued alternatives to incarceration.
The actual number of deaths that have been the result of ICE detention during the pandemic is not known. ICE has deported thousands of people since March all over the world, hundreds of whom are known to have been COVID positive at the time of their deportation, and the majority of those deported have almost certainly been exposed to novel coronavirus while in custody. How many of these people have died following their deportation? How many others did those deported from the United States expose to novel coronavirus upon their return home due to ICE’s recklessness? There is no way to know. One possible indication of ICE’s responsibility: At the beginning of the summer at least200 people in Guatemala who were COVID-19 positive had been traced to deportation flights.
Below I try to tell a part of the story of those who have died in the U.S. since October 1, 2020. Sadly, for most, the only information currently available to me is from ICE reports. In some cases, press reports have provided additional information – though often they are simply repeating information from ICE press releases. For a few of the deaths that happened earlier in the year, there has been time for independent investigation; negligence in these cases has been shown. None of these people deserved to die, and certainly the 20,000 other people remaining in detention do not deserve to be threatened with death for simply not being a U.S. citizen.
*Most reports show 20 deaths this year. I have included Óscar López Acosta below, which others have not. Though he died from COVID-19 related illness several weeks after his release, the details indicate he was most likely infected while in detention. López was included in Congressional counts of COVID deaths in ICE detention.
Nebane Abienwi, from Cameroon, October 1, 2019. Otay Mesa Detention facility (CoreCivic). From our earlier report:
Nebane Abienwi left Cameroon this summer, flying to Ecuador and then traveling up through Columbia, Central America and Mexico. He arrived at the San Ysidro Port of Entry near San Diego and declared his intent to seek asylum. Nebane was 37 years old and a father of six children. According to family members, his goal was to settle in the United States and then bring his family to join him.
On September 26, Abienwi apparently fell off his bunk, and was found in a confused state. He was eventually sent to Chula Vista Medical Center where it was discovered he was bleeding severely in his brain. The family was contacted on September 30th. At this point Abienwi was on a ventilator. Abienwi’s brother informed officials that the family wanted his brother to remain on life support until someone could come to be with him. However, after declaring that Nebane was brain dead, medical staff took him off life support. His brother, who was trying to get travel documents together to come be with Abienwi was not informed by ICE or medical staff. He found out from a reporter who called about the case.
Follow up report from The Nation: ‘According to two medical professionals, the lack of proper medical attention indicates that he was a victim of medical negligence. “It’s just inconceivable to me that he’s…been hospitalized three weeks ago [in Mexico] for severe hypertension and then can come into a facility and be totally normal,” said Dr. John Flack, hypertension specialist and Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine at Southern Illinois University, adding that his symptoms appeared to have been “woefully undertreated.”’
Roylan Hernandez-Diaz, from Cuba, October 15, 2019, Richwood Correctional Facility (Lasalle Corrections):
Crossed the border in May of 2019 seeking asylum. He was handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In August Roylan passed a credible fear interview and yet was still held in detention despite having family in the U.S. and thus not being a threat to flee. In October Roylan was part of a protest inside the Richwood Correctional facility where he was being held. In retaliation, Roylan was placed in solitary confinement. He was found dead in his cell; an apparent suicide by hanging.
Report on follow up investigation: “An Associated Press investigation into Hernandez’s death last October found neglect and apparent violations of government policies by jailers under U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, at a time when detention of migrants has reached record levels and new questions have arisen about the U.S. government’s treatment of people seeking refuge.”
Akinyemi arrived in the United States in 2017 with a non-immigrant visa which was good for a year. He stayed beyond its expiration. In July 2019 he was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor sex crime and assault. He was convicted and given a suspended sentence with three years probation on Dec 19, 2019. Upon his release he was immediately handed over to ICE and taken to the Worcester County Jail in Maryland on December 20th. He hung himself in his cell that night (5:00 a.m. December 21, 2019).
Samuelino Pitchout Mavinga French citizen, originally from Angola, December 29, 2019. Otero County Processing Center (Management Training Corporation):
Mavinga arrived in New York in November 2018 under a visa waiver program. He was detained by border patrol at a checkpoint in Texas on November 11, 2019, for overstaying his visa. Mavinga was transferred into ICE custody the next day, and put into detention at the Otero County Processing Center, in Chaparral, New Mexico, pending deportation. He was, according to the intake proceeding, healthy. A month later, on December 11th, he was transferred to the Torrance County Detention Facility in Estancia, New Mexico. Prior to his transfer, ICE staff noted that he had stopped eating and had lost nearly twenty pounds. They transferred him anyway.
Mavinga was taken to a hospital the day after his arrival at Estancia and found to be suffering from a twisting of the large intestines causing bowel obstruction. He had surgery to remove a portion of his colon on December 16. In recovery he was confused, and uncooperative. The staff, with a doctor’s permission, received an order allowing him to be placed in a 4 point constraint – but it is not clear this was used. By Christmas day, Mavinga was in critical condition, his stomach filled with fluid due to infection. He died a few days later from a heart attack brought on by septic shock.
Ben James Owen from Britain, January 26, 2020. Baker County Detention Center (Baker County Sheriff’s Office)
Ben Owen died at the Baker County Detention Center in Macclenny, Florida, the cause of death “self-inflicted strangulation.
Owen entered the country on July 23, 2019 on a visa good until December 2019. He was here to visit his wife and newborn daughter who lived in Tennessee. According to a profile in the Daily Mail, he was hoping to eventually bring his family back to the U.K. In the interim he was applying for a green-card so he could stay in the U.S. and work as an electrician.
In November Owen was charged with battery for an undisclosed incident in Daytona Beach. ICE noted that Owen overstayed his visa at this point, though the time line makes clear he was charged in November, and could not have then left the country in December as he was awaiting trial. He was re-arrested on January 12 for violating the terms of his release. Owen was then turned over to ICE on January 15 and placed into deportation proceedings. Though facing charges, it is worth noting he had not yet been convicted of anything prior to being placed in ICE custody.
Owen hung himself ten days later after making a phone call to a friend. In addition to the new born daughter, he had another young daughter in the U.K.
Alberto Fundaro-Hernandez, from Cuba, died January 27, 2020 after detention at Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami, FL.
Hernandez had been in the United States since 1980, arriving with other refugees during the “Mariel boatlift.” Over the years he had several arrests on drug and assault charges, and had been homeless for at least 10 of those years. In January of 2000 an immigration judge issued an order of removal for Hernandez, though he was released with an “order of supervision.” ICE arrested him again on January 14, 2020 after he was discharged from jail following a three-day stint for shoplifting. He was then placed in Krome North Service Processing Center pending removal to Cuba.
Upon arrival at Krome, his medical sheet included the following conditions: congestive heart failure, asthma, diabetes, hypertension, Hepatitis C, dyslipidemia, and chronic kidney disease. Over the next week his health deteriorated rapidly. By January 22 he had become incontinent and X-rays showed an enlarged heart. On January 23 he was finally transferred to a hospital. Four days later he had 8 heart attacks in the space of 4 hours. He was briefly placed on life support and, according to ICE’s report, an effort was made to locate a family member. None was found. Following a 9th heart attack he was taken off of life support later that morning. He was 63.
David Hernandez Colula from Mexico, died February 21, 2020 after detention in the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center (CoreCivic).
Colula had been in the United States since at least 2014 – when he was picked up by border patrol in New York. He was released on bond a few days later pending removal proceedings. In December 2019 Hernandez was arrested by the Sturgis Police Department in Michigan who were responding to a “civil dispute” between Hernandez and his wife. The report indicates he was then held on an outstanding warrant for a previous domestic assault. Upon release from jail, Hernandez was immediately transferred to ICE custody and placed in detention pending removal proceedings. He was placed at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown, Ohio on December 10, 2019.
Two days after his arrival at NOCC, Hernandez was found in his cell with a blanket around his neck. He was placed under a suicide watch and took part in group therapy sessions. Just four days later, a staff evaluation determined that, “he presented without risk factors, and recommended discontinuing his constant observation.” He was returned to the general population. In mid-January, Hernandez reported anxiety and sleeplessness. He was given anti-anxiety medications. Between January 8 and February 19 his ICE report indicates only three check-ins with mental health staff. A few hours after the last reported evaluation on February 19, in which staff claim they witnessed no concerning behavior, Hernandez hung himself in his room with a bed sheet.
Maria Celeste Ochoa Yoc de Ramirez was 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. Six days later she was transferred to Kay County Detention Center (KCDC) in Oklahoma. Her intake assessment indicated she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. 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 had family in the United States willing to sponsor her. Under the current administration she was detained anyway. ICE’s death report makes no mention of her asylum claim.
Between her arrival at KCDC in September and the end of January her ICE report only indicates medical treatment for minor issues. However, by the first of February she had lost 14 pounds and was clearly very ill. Over the course of the next 6 days, she was evaluated repeatedly, at one point simply given Flonase for a runny nose. Throughout she had an elevated heart rate and trouble breathing. On February 6, following an “abnormal” urine analysis she was finally sent to a hospital. The next day, Ochoa had an emergency gallbladder surgery. She was returned to detention on February 10. Three days later she was transferred to a Prairieland Detention Center in Alvarado, Texas.
On February 18, Ochoa was then taken to a hospital again, 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.” In other words, she died from an infection related to her surgery – a process that unfolded over nearly 2 weeks as her body slowly broke down. She was only 22.
Orlan Ariel Carcamo-Navarro arrived in the United States with his son on February 19, 2020. They presented themselves at the Presidio Texas Port of Entry and indicated that they would file for asylum. Two days later they were transferred to the Karnes County Residential Center.
Carcamo failed his initial asylum screening by a US Citizenship and Immigration Services officer on Feb. 28. This decision was later upheld by an immigration judge on March 11. Inside Karnes, Carcamo was suffering from depression. A case worker noted on March 5 that he became upset during a group trauma therapy session after discussing his situation back in Honduras and the initial denial of his asylum claim.
On March 16 during his parent “audit-check,” a social worker noted, “[Carcamo] reports… having anxiety, insomnia (difficulty sleeping), nightmares.” He was referred for an individual psychiatric evaluation. The next night, a week after his asylum appeal was denied, Carcamo hung himself in his room.
Lucian Allain of RAICES, who had been working with the family, said: “Today we learned that an immigrant father detained at the Karnes Detention Center took his own life. We are in shock and deeply disturbed by this devastating news. He was our client and we were fighting for his and his family’s freedom…” At the time of writing I could find no information on what happened to his son. Carcamo was married and had one other child. He was 27 years old.
On December 20, 2019 Hernandez was arrested by the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s office for assault. Hernandez’s immigration record indicates he had been back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. many times over the past 20 years, and had been deported prior. Hernandez was convicted of the assault charge, and released with time served on January 14 – though held overnight on a detainer from ICE. On January 15 he was transferred to ICE custody and taken to the Port Isabel Detention Center. His intake form noted a history of diabetes and hypertension.
On February 7 an “advanced practice provider” evaluated Hernandez. ICE’s summary: “an APP evaluated Mr. Hernandez during a chronic care appointment and reviewed his laboratory results, which were normal except for elevated lipids, glucose, hemoglobin A1C, and trace protein and ketones in his urine. Mr. Hernandez complained of left flank pain, reported past kidney issues, and not drinking water.” (emphasis added). Over the next 10 days Hernandez was given a variety of treatment, and eventually diagnosed with a urinary tract infection. Four weeks later he collapsed while using the bathroom. He was rushed to a hospital where it was discovered he was in kidney failure. Unresponsive, he was placed on a ventilator. On March 21 he was removed from life support and pronounced dead. The press release simply noted “septic shock” as the preliminary cause of death. He was 42.
Carlos was born in El Salvador and he fled that country as a child with his mother and sister after his brother was killed during the civil war in 1980. He had lived in the United States for 40 years. Like many people who live in the shadow of trauma, Carlos struggled with addiction and one result was a number of arrests for possession and a DUI. For these offenses, he served sentences like anyone else, and yet, under Clinton-era laws, the convictions made him deportable.
With a removal order in place, Carlos was placed in detention at the Otay Mesa Detention Facility after being stopped at a check-point by Border Patrol in January of this year. Carlos also had diabetes severe enough that an injury to one of his feet several years ago led to its amputation. In a wheelchair, diagnosed with hypertension and diabetes, he should have never been detained at all while awaiting his hearings — and certainly should have been paroled once the threat of COVID-19 was apparent. Instead, he was incarcerated.
On April 21, 2020 he was evaluated by medical staff for chills, cough and a sore throat. He was given a COVID-19 test, but sent back to the general population until the results came back positive three days later, at which point he was reassigned to a unit for COVID-19 patients.
He died on May 6 from “complications due to COVID-19.”
Choung Woong Ahn from South Korea, died May 17, 2020, Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield, California
Ahn had been in the United States since 1988 and was a permanent resident. He had been convicted of attempted murder in 2013 and was taken into custody by ICE after his release from prison earlier this year. ICE had refused to release Ahn on bond after multiple appeals from family and attorneys since the time he was taken into custody in February.
Given his age  and health condition [diabetic], there seems little reason to have kept him detained. His crime made him deportable, but he had already served his sentence. If he were a U.S. citizen, he would simply have been sent home. Had he been permitted bond and allowed to wait for his hearing with family members, he would still be alive.
Ahn’s last appeal for bond was on May 13 and was denied. On May 17 he was found hanging in his cell, an apparent suicide.
June Lee, director of the Korean Community Center of the East Bay wrote: “Mr. Ahn already served his time fully for his former convictions. He spent eight years at Solano State Prison in Vacaville. He earned his release, and was deemed safe to be reunited with family. Instead, ICE transferred him to the immigration detention facility in Bakersfield for deportation proceedings. ICE not only detained him, exposing a medically vulnerable old man to horrible risk of COVID19, but refused to release him 3 times, confiscating his right to see his family for good. A most meaningful way to honor Mr. Ahn’s life is to ensure no more inhumane death in ICE and its facilities [emphasis added].”
Óscar López Acosta from Honduras, died May 17, 2020, shortly after release from Morrow County Jail. COVID-19
Óscar López Acosta had been charged for irregular re-entry, after crossing the border following being deportations in 2009 and again in 2012. Though facing a federal conviction, Óscar fought the charge and was held in pre-trial detention for months. In May of 2019, he was released from federal prison after a judge sentenced him to time served for the re-entry charge. Rather than get released, however, he was transferred back into ICE custody, where he remained for another year.
On April 24 of this year, after it was confirmed that another person detained with him (and dozens of other people) had tested positive for COVID-19, he was released from Morrow County Jail. Oscar himself tested positive on May 3, and died of complications from the disease on May 17. He should have never been detained. Óscar López Acosta also had diabetes, and ICE knew this. During his trial for irregular re-entry in January of 2019, he went into diabetic shock after jailers forgot to give him his insulin injection. There was no purpose to his detention to begin with, and given his risk factors, he should have certainly been released much sooner.
ICE does not recognize Acosta’s death as a “detainee death” and most media outlets except for Mother Jones, have not reported on his death in relation to ICE detention. I am including him in my count because it seems clear he was infected with COVID-19 while in ICE custody and that he would be alive today if not for an unnecessary year spent in detention.
Santiago Baten-Oxlaj from Guatemala, died May 24, 2020 after detention at Stewart Detention Center. COVID-19
Santiago Baten-Oxla had been in the United States since 2005 without papers. He had no record until an arrest for driving under the influence earlier this year. On February 19 he was sentenced to 48 hours in jail and a year of probation. On March 2, ICE arrested Baten while he was checking in at a probation office in Marietta, Georgia. He was taken into custody and placed at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, GA. His intake form documents a history of diabetes. On March 26, an immigration judge granted him voluntary departure. He was supposed to leave the country “on or before” April 27.
Baten was then exposed to COVID-19 in mid-April – when someone in his cohort tested positive. Baten remained with his cohort, despite showing symptoms and his documented history of diabetes, for 5 more days. His health continued to decline. He was finally transferred to Piedmont Columbus Regional Hospital on April 18, where he was formally diagnosed with COVID-19. He remained hospitalized until his death, spending the last few days of his life in intensive care. He was 34 years old, married and had three children.
Onoval Perez-Montufa was arrested on cocaine possession charges in 2007. He was tried and sentenced the following year to 12 years in federal prison. Upon his release from prison on June 15, 2020, Perez was immediately taken into ICE custody and detained pending removal proceedings.
Perez’s intake form indicated that he had a history of diabetes. He was initially held at the Krome Service Processing Center, and then transferred to Glades County Detention Center on June 24. Krome has been the source of multiple infections. Just a few weeks before Perez was held here a federal judge announced that 350 people had been exposed to COVID-19 and were in quarantine after eight staff members had tested positive. By mid-July there were 91 confirmed cases of COVID-19 at Krome, which one attorney described as a “COVID-19 petri dish.” Transfers from Krome have spread COVID-19 throughout the country – including possibly Farmville, which has an infection rate of over 80% now. This was the situation Perez was placed in.
Within a week of his transfer from Krome to Glades, Perez was showing COVID-19 symptoms and tested positive on July 2, 2020. In another week he was intubated, and remained on a ventilator until he was pronounced dead on July 12. Perez was 51 years old, married and had three children.
Louis Sanchez Perez from Guatemala, died July 15 after detention at Catahoula Correctional Center, Monroe, LA
Louis Sanchez Perez originally came to the United States in 1998 and was arrested by Border Patrol. He was sent back to Guatemala shortly after. He entered the U.S. again, and was removed following an arrest for a driving violation. He entered the system again after an arrest for drunk driving in Tennessee earlier this year. On January 29, 2020 ICE took custody of Sanchez and transferred him to Etowah County Jail.
Despite the risks associated with moving detainees from facility to facility in the current context, Perez would be transferred three more times. On February 6 he was transferred to the LaSalle ICE Processing Center. The next day he was transferred to the Winn Correctional Center. While at Winn Sanchez got sick. His in-take forms indicated a history of diabetes and hypertension. Within days he was exhibiting high blood pressure, which was treated and he appeared to stabilize. On February 21 he reported having trouble sleeping and difficulty breathing. On February 26 he was transferred again, this time to the Catahoula Correctional Center. That day he ended up in the hospital showing signs of pneumonia and never came out.
On June 9, Sanchez’s “cardiac monitor showed bradycardia (slow heart rate), and [he] presented with a faint pulse and respiratory difficulty, requiring subsequent transfer to the ICU and ventilatory assistance.” He was in ICU until his death on July 15. Despite these symptoms, there is no indication in his report that he was ever given a COVID-19 test. Rather, hospital staff ruled the preliminary cause of death to be “septic shock leading to cardiopulmonary arrest.” Louis Sanchez Perez was married and had one child. He was 46 years old.
Kuan Hai Lee from Taiwan, died August 6, 2020 after detention at Krome Service Processing Center, Miami, FL.
Kuan Hai Lee was incarcerated after being picked up by Border Patrol on January 23. He was found to have entered the country legally in 2004, but had overstayed his visa. On July 31 staff at the Krome Service Processing Center found Lee on the floor. He was taken to Kendall Hospital, where he remained until his death. The cause of death is listed by ICE as “massive intercranial [sic] hemorrhage.” There is very little information about Lee’s case available at this time. ICE has not yet released a detainee death report.
James Thomas Hill from Canada, died August 6, 2020 after detention at ICA-Farmville, Virginia. COVID-19.
Farmville currently has the highest COVID-19 infection rate among ICE’s facilities. At this point, almost everyone at Farmville is COVID-19 positive. The explosion of cases here happened following transfers from facilities with high exposure rates in Florida and Arizona in June.
On James Hill’s death, which is too recent for official review, I simply quote from the La Colective/Sanctuary DMV press release: We mourn the loss of James Hill, a 72-year-old man who died of COVID-19 after contracting the disease while detained at the Farmville detention center, operated by the private prison company Immigration Centers of America (ICA). Despite being high-risk of death from COVID-19 due to his age, James Hill had been detained at ICA-Farmville between April and July of this year, as the global pandemic spread like wildfire in ICE facilities across the country. He was supposed to return home to Canada on July 9th, but fell ill and was hospitalized days before his flight. On Wednesday night, he lost his fight against COVID and became the 17th person to die in ICE custody this fiscal year.
James Hill’s death was entirely preventable. He, along with nearly 90% of the detained population at Farmville, contracted COVID after ICE transferred 74 people from Florida and Arizona into ICA-Farmville in June. 51 of those 74 people later tested positive for COVID-19, and, shortly after the transfer, the entire facility became overwhelmed with COVID. Mr. Hill also suffered aggravated COVID symptoms after ICA-Farmville guards used pepper spray against people protesting the facility’s abysmal response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Jose Guillen-Vega from Costa Rica, died August 10, 2020 after detention at Stewart Detention Center (CoreCivic). COVID-19
There is very little available about Guillen-Vega’s case other than what is in the ICE press release confirming his passing from complications related to COVID-19: “Guillen-Vega entered the United States in El Paso, Texas, in 1999 with authorization to remain until 2000. He stayed beyond that date and was later convicted of statutory rape and taking indecent liberties with a child in in Lincolnton, N.C., before being sentenced to 20 years in prison. ICE took custody of him on July 10 following his release from a North Carolina prison and transported him to Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., five days later.”
His death from COVID-19 after detention at Stewart underscores ongoing concerns about Stewart Detention Center. Stewart has been the source of a years-long campaign to shutter the facility over its lack of adequate health services – in “normal” times – and patterns of abusive behavior. Guillen-Vega is the second person to die from COVID-19 at Stewart since May.
According to ICE, Sabonger-Garcia had been in custody since July 7, after being transferred from the U.S. Marshal Services. He was first detained in July of 2019 after entering near Brownsville, TX. Though not specified, he seems to have been charged with irregular entry and held for a year in federal custody before being transferred to ICE. He became ill soon after his transfer and died from complications related to COVID-19 on August 28.
Chavez-Alvarez was a 61 year-old immigrant from Mexico. In 1993 he was sentenced to life in a federal prison following conviction for possession of cocaine with intent to sell. The heavy sentence was the result of this being his third federal drug conviction. In July of this year a federal judge ordered Chavez Alvarez released from federal prison. At that point he had served 27 years for the possession charge, and was sick. He had lymphoma, diabetes, kidney disease, and hypertension. The judge, Neil Wake, ordered him released from prison because he had a “chronic illness from which he is not expected to recover and the defendant’s ability to provide self-care against serious injury or death as a result of COVID-19 is substantially diminished, within the environment of a correctional facility, by the chronic condition itself.” Chavez-Alvarez was released from federal prison and immediately taken into ICE custody.
Stewart Detention Center is certainly characterized as the “environment of a correctional facility,” and so by the judge’s very description of the risk to Chavez-Alvarez, keeping him in detention was putting his life at risk. Within six weeks of being transferred to Stewart he became the 21st person to die this year in ICE custody, the 8th person to die with COVID, and the third person to die of COVID at Stewart.
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  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.
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.
On social media several weeks ago, I read, with no small alarm, the hysterical rants of the great protectors of our cultural patrimony, upon the defacement of the sculpture of Cervantes in a San Francisco park. Clutching my pearls, I wondered what had become of our way of life. Digging deeper, I learned that the two statues facing Cervantes were also “desecrated” with spray paint. These statues, of course, represent Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Our founders at the Quixote Center took the name of this fictional nobleman because he embodied a quest for living according to lofty, if sometimes ludicrous, ideals. His squire, Sancho, has shared a name with our computer system at the Center, lo, these last 40 years.
On the night of June 19, 2020, when statues including Junipero Serra and Francis Scott Key were toppled in Golden Gate Park, red paint was sprayed on the eyes of the bust of Cervantes and his creations, and the word “bastard” on the pedestal for the bust, as well as red crosshairs on the backs of our beloved knight and his faithful Sancho.
Some folks – not least a bystander named “Howard” – were upset. As covered by the local CBS affiliate: “‘Don Quixote and Sancho Panza — and for what?’ asked a frustrated Howard, watching the graffiti removal from John F. Kennedy Drive. ‘It’s very sad. It makes me feel it’s totally out of hand and it has nothing to do with civil rights.’” He further lamented that the police just “let them do it.” A blogger stated that the protesters were Antifa.
I don’t know about the truth of this claim. I don’t know anything about the beliefs of the person whose hand held the can of spray paint. I don’t really think either of these guys does either, although Howard may have seen something. He certainly seems to think this was somehow unfair.
Maybe it was. Or maybe it was done by people frustrated that fictional characters got a monument, showing more honor for their imaginary lives than those of flesh and blood people.
The Judeo-Christian tradition has a word or two on the subject of graven images. Some have pointed to the story in Exodus when Moses called out the worship of a golden calf. But a more instructive case for our current moment may come from a different tale. In Numbers (21:4-9), Moses is divinely instructed to fashion a bronze serpent to protect the Israelites from the bites of serpents. After many generations have passed, however, this same sculpture – the Nehushtan, or “brazen serpent” – resurfaces in 2 Kings (18:4). By then it had become an object of worship in itself, contemptible because it is just a thing, not worthy of worship, so Hezekiah destroys this remnant of the past.
Anyone who considers a statue or even a big box store worthy of an impassioned defense – while also allowing that some people may simply deserve to die – is an idolater, according greater value to a physical and aesthetic object than to a being endowed with senses, feelings, and life. Yet it seems every generation must learn anew the lesson that we can still treasure the wrong things, and often we do.
Statues are worth something, to be sure, and not just in financial terms. Like so much art, a statue is often understood to embody ideas and ideals and other qualities that go beyond observable features and tell us something about the age, context, or emotional life of the artist and the moment in which they were created.
But whatever statues may be worth, tangibly or intangibly, statues have no affective life to call their own. Statues – apart from, perhaps, the mythological Galatea (not to be confused with Cervantes’s novel of the same name) – cannot feel pain, know longing, suffer. A statue can be toppled or sent to the depths of the sea, but it cannot drown. It cannot have the life crushed out of it, because it has no life. When people’s lives are threatened by violence – be it state-sponsored or systemic or personal – prioritizing statues over people is indefensible.
Just because statues do not deserve saviors does not mean they are of no consequence. Centering public art that celebrates and memorializes the lives of oppressors is not an accident and it is not harmless. It has a long history and is a legitimate site of debate and activism. Symbols of past and present violence and oppression do real harm by celebrating historical misdeeds as if they were heroic exploits; and it is fair game for protesters to address these harms.
The work of toppling statues can help to correct a narrative that has afforded access to privileged places on pedestals to oppressors while actively suppressing the stories of those who struggled and survived against their sinister designs.
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias,” tugs irresistibly at my mind. In it, the statue of a monarch lies in pieces, with the head fallen to the ground and words carved into a pedestal reading, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; / Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” This ironic twist rewrites the narrative of a king who thought that nothing could humble him, but time and even the artist’s rendering, have betrayed this belief. History has triumphed over his “sneer of cold command.”
Racial justice demands attention to telling a fuller, and hence more truthful, story. Recently, the narrative of J. Marion Sims has been rewritten with this understanding. Sometimes revered as the “father of gynecology,” his experimental method of using live enslaved human subjects without anesthesia to test his hypotheses has led to much justified criticism. Telling this story now is important work. Relocating his statue from Central Park to the cemetery where he is buried makes him just one statue among many in a place where all sorts of people are remembered – without necessarily being honored. This more suitable placement gives new meaning to the words of early 20th century labor activist Mother Jones: “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.” Moreover, a plaque offers context and names Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsey, three of the Black women who were subjects in his research, adding their names to the historical record.
Returning to our namesake, in the last chapter of the first volume of Don Quixote, the knight errant comes upon a group of penitents garbed in white and carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary. Our hapless hero decides he must rescue this helpless icon from her captors. In his zeal to deliver the damsel in distress, Don Quixote ends up getting knocked to the ground. While he lives to have more tales of derring-do, his attempt to rescue a statue is a tale of tomfoolery. This episode suggests that Cervantes would have laughed at the notion of people trying to come to the aid of an inert statue featuring his visage (or even that of a certain European slaveholder).
So, if you thought the folks at the Quixote Center would be offended by a little paint added to some literary statuary, you don’t know us very well. We maintain that people who work for justice in the world may be laughed at sometimes, but that the work is worthwhile anyway. While we take our causes seriously, we try not to take ourselves too seriously.
We prefer to focus on today’s work – standing with movements for justice – so that the narrative of tomorrow can lift up new heroes who stand with the oppressed people of history and work for our collective liberation.
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.