People detained at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in Texas refused to return to their beds in protest against their ongoing detention amid the coronavirus crisis. Detainees began “panicking in recent days after learning of the virus from TV news inside the facility and grew concerned not only over the screening of arriving migrants and contract workers, but also of a few migrants who were exhibiting coronavirus-like symptoms,” San Antonio Express-News reports. Staff addressed their fears by pepper-spraying them.
San Antonio Express-News reported guards at the South Texas Processing Center pepper-sprayed as many as 60 people over the demonstration, moving nine they claimed led the protest to “restricted housing.” Then they shut off detainees’ news access, immigration attorneys Andrés Perez and Crystal Vargas said their clients told them. All for trying to save their own lives, since ICE won’t do it. “These are people sitting, trapped, at the government’s expense without access to proper medical care, so they’re freaking out,” Perez told San Antonio Express-News. “Pepper spray is uncalled for.”
This hasn’t been the only demonstration recently: detainees have launched hunger strikes in at least two New Jersey facilities due to their ongoing detention. “Among reports of egregious conditions, we have heard that ICE is not responding to medical sick calls and that there are sick people in units who are not being treated or tested,” the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project said about the protest at the Hudson County Correctional Facility. ProPublica reported that a detainee who is hunger striking there for more soap was mocked by a guard, who told him: “Well, you’re going to have to die of something.”
People detained by ICE have every reason to fear for their well-being. This public health crisis is exposing many of the inhumane and unsanitary conditions that have plagued ICE facilities for years, like lack of access to soap, poor nutrition and medical care, and crowded sleeping arrangements. Advocates suing for the release of parents and kids from migrant family jails say this will all pile up into “a tinderbox” when this pandemic hits ICE facilities, which officials confirmed has now begun to happen.
But rather than addressing the numerous calls from federal legislators, thousands of medical professionals, everyday people like you and me, and even the former head of ICE to at the very least have the fucking decency to release parents and their kids so they don’t get sick and die in a jail, they pepper-spray them and then turn off their access to information. It’s intentional, too: Plaintiffs from that lawsuit to free families said staffers aren’t giving them the information they need to stay safe. “Petitioners are aware of COVID-19 only from the news on the television,” the lawsuit said.
“Imagine how scary that is for them,” Vargas told San Antonio Express-News about their ongoing detention during this crisis. Perez told San Antonio Express-News that “if you’re in a situation where any medical care is hard to come by unless it’s severe—if you can’t really get normal medical care, and you knew you were being exposed to the virus, you’d be pretty freaked out.”