Living with COVID-19 while confined in an immigration jail


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 that causes it.

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 American Civil Liberties Union 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 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement 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 uses. Social distancing is not an option. With everything we’ve learned from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 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 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 U.S. Customs and Border Protection 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 the 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 the virus that causes COVID-19 to both people in immigration jails, and the staff who work in them.

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, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security 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 older than 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 United States, 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.

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 health care 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.

Shah is a senior advocacy and policy counsel for the ACLU, while Flores is the deputy policy director for the organization.

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