It’s never a good time to be a detainee in ICE custody. Since the early days of the Trump Administration, we’ve seen photos of children in cages, heard first-hand accounts of families separated at the border and read about the plight of transgender detainees denied critical medical care. As each story unfurled, we were left thinking, “it couldn’t possibly get worse.” And yet the next report of deplorable treatment proved to be worse than the one before.
The latest threat, however, is perhaps the most ominous of all: Life -and death - in detention during COVID-19.
The quality of life in detention centers, if it can even be called that, is terrible in the best of times. Healthcare is even worse. As recently as this past year, there were widespread reports – including from government watchdogs – citing “rotting food, moldy dilapidated bathrooms,” “nooses in detainee cells” and “inadequate healthcare.” An administrative complaint from 2019 obtained by BuzzFeed news “detailed stories of immigrant detainees who received inconsistent medication, suffered delayed medical care, and faced threats of punitive segregation following suicide attempts.” Long before coronavirus made headlines, the American Immigration Lawyers Association was already warning that detainees were routinely subjected to “pain, serious injury, or the risk of death.”
In our own work, Public Justice has seen first-hand how deadly unchecked infectious disease can be to those in detention. In 2013, we recovered a $2.19 million settlement for a client who had suffered brain damage from meningitis that went undiagnosed for far too long during his detention by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. We also fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of Francisco Casteneda, a detainee who was denied critical cancer treatment and subsequently died because of the delay. So we understand all too well that the risk to detainees during this outbreak is not an abstraction; we’ve fought alongside those facing similar risks for years.
It is unrealistic to assume that an Administration that has practically bragged about such mistreatment of immigrant families in the past will do better now. And it is unimaginable that a President who has failed to supply healthcare workers, governors, mayors and the most vulnerable even a fraction of the supplies they need to fight COVID-19 will give a second thought to the suffering of those he so blatantly despises. Conditions in detention centers do not allow for social distancing, and maintaining even a small portion of the CDC’s hygiene recommendations is next to impossible.
That is why, absent any plan, action or expectation of help from the federal government, my organization, Public Justice, is joining a growing chorus of advocates in calling on ICE to release detainees before the nationwide pandemic also turns into a detention death sentence. There is simply no good reason or excuse to jeopardize the lives of families and children who are being held in deplorable conditions that are ripe for fueling the spread of the virus and quickly claim lives. Their safety, as well as the safety of detention center employees, is at grave – and unnecessary – risk.
Thankfully, some courts are beginning to agree. On Tuesday in Pennsylvania, a court ordered the release of thirteen detainees due to the risk of contracting the virus. And one detainee at High Desert Detention Center in Adelanto, California, has also been released, with the court citing his vulnerability to COVID-19. Other courts seem poised to take similar action soon, with one U.S. District Judge insisting that “the government has got to come back to me and give me answers about the capacity of these centers, videotapes of living conditions and steps taken toward release.”
Those who have been released so far, however, are an inestimably small fraction of the estimated tens of thousands of immigrants currently in custody. It is time for the courts, and for ICE, to do more. Releasing those now in custody is a matter of basic human decency and fundamental human rights.
As the coronavirus has spread throughout the U.S., and across the globe, it has wrecked havoc on economies both large and small, leaving families feeling worried, vulnerable and understandably concerned about how to care for themselves and their loved ones. Long before the virus arrived, however, those were the same motivations that sent many of the men, women and children currently in ICE custody to seek refuge on our shores. As our collective realization that we are all in this together has grown, our national empathy must as well.
Now is the time to act. As the pandemic becomes worse every day, more lives are put at risk with each hour that passes. Congress, the courts and ICE itself has a responsibility to take this threat seriously and to prioritize the health and safety of our fellow human beings over politicized imprisonment of vulnerable families housed in conditions that are inhumane and inescapably dangerous.
This issue is urgent, and our window for making an impact is short. Please visit the COVID-19 action page just launched by our friends at Detention Watch Network for more information on how you can be part of this life-or-death campaign to get families out of harm’s way.