ICE Protest outside Bergen County Jail: Protesters outside the jail with abolish ICE signs. – Hackensack, New Jersey, USA – November 29th, 2020 (Shutterstock)
By American Immigration Council Staff, Immigration Impact
Many of us will always vividly remember the fear and lack of control that took hold as COVID-19 spread through our communities. While many people and communities took precautions against the virus, individuals detained in dire conditions in immigration detention facilities across the country were denied the ability to do so.
Some of those trapped in prolonged detention amid the COVID-19 outbreak have shared their stories. Their testimonies highlight the lack of humanity with which they were treated in detention. They also show the ways U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) exposed them to extreme danger when they should have been released at the beginning of the pandemic to go live and quarantine with family or sponsors outside of detention.
From detention, as COVID-19 raged through the Joe Corley Detention Facility in Texas where he was being held, Roger wrote:
“Today, within this crowded detention facility, all of us are victims of this pandemic… We only ask to fight for our lives with our families at our sides, as we are in no way a risk to this society. It would be better that the government use these centers, food, resources and staff to help the people who need it most.
“Conditions in this center are ripe for the propagation of the novel coronavirus. Detainees with respiratory symptoms are forced to go without medical assistance, and there are over 30 people in most dorms, making social distancing virtually impossible. We do not have access to personal protective equipment like masks or gloves. When the doctor walks by, people bang on the door to try to get medical attention. I have seen people carried out in critical condition. Meanwhile, individuals from the border and other detention centers are being transferred to the facility.”
One client detained in the Mesa Verde ICE Detention Center in southern California said,
“There’s no hand sanitizer, not even to buy in the commissary. I try to clean to avoid the virus, but I’m afraid it doesn’t work… No matter how careful I am, I still have to touch shared surfaces and pass very close by to others all day long. I am 51 and my health hasn’t been the same since my cancer. I lost approximately 20 pounds during my first few months in ICE detention.”
Another individual detained at the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona shared, “I have heard that people here have coronavirus. This last week they filled the pods with people and once again we cannot maintain a distance. There’s now 50 people in the pod.”
Following her release from the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia, one client wrote:
“There is no hygiene, I was with 23 women in a barrack and we all shared three phones, two showers, and three bathrooms. We were all touching all the same things and had nothing to clean them with. The bathrooms were especially dirty, there were mosquitoes and bugs everywhere and no cleaning supplies so you just had to put up with it.”
These conditions are not unique to the period when COVID-19 was spreading rapidly through detention facilities. Many of these detention centers have long-documented trends of inhumane conditions as well as medical and mental health abuse and neglect.
There are safe ways for individuals to be transferred out of ICE custody to quarantine in the homes of family members and sponsors and have access to the care they need to recover. This could help reduce the potential spread of COVID-19 and its related impact on local healthcare infrastructure.
As the Biden administration’s first 100 days in office approaches, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should release those who are needlessly facing dire—and at times deadly—situations in ICE custody. No one should be locked up for seeking safety in the United States. The agency must invest in humane, community-based immigration services to replace detention.