Though the federal government has repeatedly assured Americans that it is doing all it can to stop the spread of the coronavirus, one controversial agency may well be enabling its spread rather than actively participating in slowing it down, while claiming the mantle of protecting “national security.” But there is nothing more essential to the security of the American people than overcoming this immediate public health disaster — especially not institutionalized racism.
Somebody, however, ought to tell Immigration and Customs Enforcement. According to a March 19 tweet from Department of Homeland Security acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli, ICE “will continue to prioritize arresting and removing criminal aliens and other aliens who pose a threat to public safety.”
And where, exactly, will those people go? Well, many will go into ICE's detention centers — and local prison facilities that hold detainees for ICE — all of which have been identified as significant potential coronavirus transmission centers for both detainees and workers alike.
Some of the biggest public health risks appear to be in ICE’s detention centers, where most individuals wait for their backlogged immigration cases to be heard. Over the last few weeks, conditions in these jails have raised additional concerns as to whether ICE or the private prison contractors who run most of ICE’s jails are remotely capable of responsibly handling a single COVID-19 case, given detainees are regularly held in overcrowded conditions, subjected to a lack of basic sanitation and, like many people incarcerated in the U.S., have little, if any, access to soap or hand sanitizers, let alone gloves or masks.
If one listens to the voices of those being detained, you hear cries of fear and desperation.
“The truth is that we have one request: our freedom," F., a detainee at the Richwood Detention Center in Richwood, Louisiana, told an Alabama-based immigrant rights group at the end of March. "People are dying from coronavirus. Even in the United States, a world power, a first world power, the hospitals are collapsed. Here we are vulnerable, you understand?”
In several jails in places such as Washington, Louisiana, Texas and Georgia, other detainees have shared similar accounts; some have reportedly gone on hunger strikes in specific locations. (ICE says those specific accounts are false while admitting that hunger strikes could be occurring.) ICE has confirmed the use of pepper spray on individuals seeking better coronavirus protections, claiming that detainees asking questions about COVID-19 precautions were being unruly — as if it's easy to stay calm while you fear of dying inside a jail because the guards refused to let anyone wash their hands.
ICE, of course, insists that it is following proper medical protocol, but this an agency notorious for its blatant mismanagement — and, besides which, how are people supposed to socially distance inside an overcrowded detention center?
Detainees, advocates and their attorneys are thus tracking positive cases being reported in immigration jails, while the immigrant rights community continues to call for the release of all immigrant detainees for public health reasons — especially in the mostly rural areas where specialized immigrant detention centers exist. The biggest concern there is that, if such a jail were to experience an outbreak, it would overwhelm the local medical centers not ready to handle a large influx of cases.
Last week, Lawyers for Civil Rights in Boston announced a victory in what the organization called “the country's first certified coronavirus class action against ICE,” securing the release of at least 43 people being held for ICE from Massachusetts’ Bristol County Jail as of April 10. (Bristol County is in the mostly rural southeast portion of the state, on the border with Rhode Island.) According to LCR, not all the individuals released met the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s high-risk factors, meaning that many of those released were due solely to the conditions inside the jail.
ICE's other work — like using “ICE Air” to deport individuals back to Central American countries and bringing back Americans from those countries — also carries the significant potential to continue spreading the coronavirus, and continues apace. The agency confirms that it is screening repatriated Americans for COVID-19 symptoms — though not testing them for the virus itself — before heading back home, but won't say whether they are checking the individuals they are deporting for symptoms. (So far, Guatemala has confirmed that three individuals deported from the U.S. have tested positive for the coronavirus upon their return.)
At a time when the world should be coming together to find humanitarian solutions to a pandemic that knows no borders, immigration status or countries, business as usual for ICE will inevitably lead to more infection and more deaths, both in the communities they say they are protecting and among the people they are supposedly protecting us from.
Current data from the CDC already shows that the virus has disproportionately affected Black and Brown communities in America, including communities where undocumented individuals live. Many of those undocumented individuals have long taken on jobs now deemed essential for our lives, like providing us with food and cleaning, which is now more important than ever. These essential workers are already terrified about this virus; with ICE following business as usual, their livelihoods, their families, their community members and their lives will continue to be constantly at risk — and so will ours.
ICE and the people trumpeting its anti-immigration mission never cared about their lives, of course; but now they're showing that they are willing to sacrifice many of ours, too, in the name of that mission. The time for business as usual needs to be over.