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Living with COVID — in an Immigration Jail

Detainees walk in a hallway at the Northwest Detention Center, a federal immigration facility in Tacoma, Washington.
Each of the 37,000 people currently detained by ICE are at severe risk of contracting COVID-19. We must immediately reduce the numbers of people in immigration detention, starting by releasing the most vulnerable to serious illness or death.
Detainees walk in a hallway at the Northwest Detention Center, a federal immigration facility in Tacoma, Washington.
Naureen Shah,
Deputy Director of Government Affairs, Equality Division,
ACLU National Political Advocacy Division
Andrea Flores,
Former Deputy Director of Policy,
ACLU's Equality Division
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March 25, 2020

Many of us are scared for our families and friends right now because of COVID-19. Every day we learn new information about the virus. Today we know that all of us, even the young and healthy, are at risk of this disease and serious complications from it. We cope and try to make ourselves safer, whether by social distancing, washing our hands more, or eating nutrition-packed meals.

But people in government custody — including the 37,000 immigrants held in immigration jails and prisons throughout the country, and thousands more held near the border — don’t have these options.  They are being held in deadly conditions. That is why in addition to calling on public officials to downsize prisons and jails in the criminal legal system, the ACLU is calling on the government to utilize all available options to reduce the number of people in immigration detention. The ACLU and our affiliates have already filed lawsuits against ICE in five states: Washington, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and California, pushing for the release of people who are most vulnerable to COVID-19 due to age or underlying medical conditions. Ultimately, no one, whether they are a citizen or an immigrant, should be forced to live in conditions that imperil their lives during this public health crisis.

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.”

It can be hard if not impossible to get medical attention, including access to previously prescribed medications. For example, it is not uncommon for detained immigrants to be given Tylenol for serious illnesses, including HIV and pneumonia. It’s no wonder that since October, 10 people have died in ICE custody. And over the past two years, at least seven children have died in CBP custody or shortly after being released, many after receiving delayed medical care or being denied care altogether.

The ACLU has long said that the vast majority of people in immigration jails are being detained unnecessarily. They are being held for processing at the border, or are awaiting their immigration hearings or another administrative action — yet they have completely lost their liberty. COVID-19 lays bare the injustice, and the often life-or-death stakes, of their detention. As public health experts have already stated, “social distancing through release is necessary to slow transmission of infection.” ICE and CBP must immediately start reducing the number of people in detention, starting with the most vulnerable, to prevent the continued spread of COVID-19 to both people in immigration jails, and the staff who work in them.

We are far from alone in raising the alarm bells on this. There is an “imminent risk to the health and safety of immigrant detainees,” according to physicians who have investigated immigration prisons on behalf of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and are experts in the field of detention health. They’ve warned that once an outbreak occurs in immigration detention, it will spread quickly and have a devastating impact.

Mass incarceration of immigrants also risks the health and safety of the people who work in these facilities, as well as the communities they return home to. Last week, ICE told Congress it would “utilize alternatives to detention, as appropriate,” but an ICE official later reportedly clarified, “there has been no announcement related to releasing individuals that are currently detained.”

We don’t know how serious the government is about utilizing alternatives. But we do know that options for reducing detention are already on the table. As we pointed out in our lawsuit,
Dawson v. Asher, DHS could use its parole authority to release people on medical grounds, including people whom the CDC and other medical experts have identified are particularly at risk: those over 50 and those who have an underlying medical condition, such as lung or heart disease.
DHS has a range of options to release people from detention: on bond, humanitarian parole, or an alternative-to-detention program. Even a former ICE chief, John Sandweg, called on ICE to utilize its options, warning that an outbreak will “spread like wildfire.” Many people in ICE jails and prisons have family or sponsors in the U.S., with whom they could live and, if necessary, quarantine safely. Likewise, people in CBP custody could be released to family, community sponsors, or shelters with proper precautions in place

There has perhaps never been a more urgent time for ICE and CBP to reduce the number of people they’re holding in detention — this is a health crisis and prevention and containment is key. Already, at least two staff members and one detained individual at immigration jails in New Jersey and Texas have tested positive for COVID-19, potentially putting at risk hundreds of detained people and staff.

Our nation’s collective health depends on the Trump administration following the advice of doctors, scientists and public health experts. These experts are telling us that social distancing is necessary to curb COVID-19. They are also telling us that access to adequate healthcare is critical. None of these are options for people trapped in immigration detention, and for the officers and staff who have to report to work. We know this is wrong. ICE and CBP must do the responsible thing: reduce the number of people in detention, starting with the most vulnerable, to keep them safe from COVID-19 before it is too late.

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