Coronavirus Is Shutting Everything Down, Except for ICE Arrests
ICE detainment facilities could quickly become a hub for Covid-19
A Mexican immigrant at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in New Jersey tested positive for the coronavirus this week — a tragedy advocates warned would happen if ICE continued to arrest and detain people in the midst of a pandemic. But for ICE, operations under Covid-19 have been business as usual.
Even though millions of Americans have disrupted their lives in a bid to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, lawyers across the country say immigrants are still being arrested despite the pandemic. (An ICE spokesperson didn’t clarify how many arrests the agency has conducted since mid-March, because ICE releases enforcement data by quarter.)
“The intake numbers in detention have definitely not gone down,” says Nyasa Hickey, director of immigration services at Brooklyn Defender Services. “We have reports from detained clients that people are continuing to come in, that new people aren’t being quarantined.”
Little has changed for the ICE officers who arrest immigrants, the facilities that detain them, and the judges who preside over their cases. In Los Angeles, ICE officers carried out arrests last week while wearing masks and gloves, according to the Los Angeles Times. In Nevada, ICE arrested a father of three when he left his house to buy cleaning supplies and food that his family would need for two weeks of self-quarantine. In Denver, ICE arrested a woman who was about to pick up her children from school.
Government workers and immigrant advocates alike warn that letting arrests, detentions, and deportations continue will speed up transmissions of the virus. In addition, ICE’s efforts to protect continued operations may only be making the national picture worse: ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations division, which handles arrests, is reportedly trying to get its hands on 45,000 N95 masks, all while hospital workers face shortages.
For a moment, it seemed like ICE would change course. In a statement issued last Wednesday, ICE said it was temporarily adjusting its enforcement priorities in light of the virus and would focus on arresting immigrants deemed to be “public safety risks” and those subject to mandatory detention because of their criminal records. By the next morning, however, acting Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli was muddying the waters, claiming on Twitter that the new directive wouldn’t prevent officers from arresting any other undocumented immigrants they came across on the job.
ICE has said it will screen new detainees for coronavirus symptoms and isolate those “with fever and/or respiratory symptoms.” But recent studies suggest the novel coronavirus can spread asymptomatically, meaning immigrants or detention center employees without symptoms could transmit the virus to others. And while ICE claims it’s taking measures to prevent the virus from spreading in its facilities, advocates aren’t convinced.
“I think there are people who have gone into detention centers — either as staff working there or as social or legal visitors — who have been carrying this thing,” says Anwen Hughes, an attorney with the immigration program at Human Rights First. “Once that happens, I don’t see how it’s possible to contain and isolate people within these facilities.” (ICE didn’t respond to GEN’s request for comment regarding how many detainees have actually been tested for Covid-19.)
“The fact that our clients are trapped within a system that even before a pandemic failed to care for them properly is horrific.”
In an attempt to prevent the virus from making its way to its facilities, ICE has suspended all social visits for detainees. Lindsay Toczylowski, executive director of the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, says the agency is also not letting lawyers who have been outside the United States in the past two weeks visit their detained clients. As of Sunday, attorneys who don’t wear masks and gloves — which they have to purchase themselves — are no longer allowed to visit their clients, the Miami Herald reports.
Limiting social and legal visits means little when employees at these facilities are still commuting to and from work every day, potentially exposing themselves and detainees to the virus. An employee at a privately run facility in New Jersey self-quarantined this week after potential exposure to the virus; a staffer at a different New Jersey facility tested positive for the virus; at a facility in Colorado, 10 detainees are being quarantined together after being potentially exposed. Immigrants detained at several facilities have gone on a hunger strike and are demanding to be released.
“ICE has a long history of failing to provide proper medical care to our clients in detention,” Toczylowski says. “In a time of pandemic, the fact that our clients are trapped within a system that even before a pandemic failed to care for them properly is horrific.” Indeed, a federal class action lawsuit filed last year alleges the agency deliberately denies care to immigrants in its custody, and government reports have found “egregious violations of detention standards,” including substandard medical care, at facilities across the country. The looming threat of the coronavirus makes the situation more dire.
“The risks of serious illness and death are present in these facilities by the mere fact that they weren’t designed to implement any of the safeguards that public health officials are telling us to implement immediately,” says César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, a law professor at the University of Denver and the author of Migrating to Prison.
Advocates are working to get detained immigrants released before the situation becomes even more dire. The ACLU sued ICE this week, demanding it release immigrants with underlying health conditions from its detention centers. Elsewhere in the country, attorneys are filing bond and parole requests in the hopes their clients will be released — but they say individual efforts won’t be enough to solve the problem, especially if deportations continue.
Government workers, including ICE attorneys and the judges who preside over immigrants’ cases, are also taking a stand — an unprecedented act of unity. In a joint statement, the ICE Professionals Union, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, and the National Association of Immigration Judges urged the Trump administration to postpone all immigration hearings, including those for detained immigrants. “Failing to close all of the nation’s Immigration Courts, both non-detained and detained settings, now will exacerbate a once-in-a-century public health crisis and lead to a greater loss of life,” Judge Ashley Tabaddor, president of the judges’ union, said in the joint statement. “We cannot afford to wait another week.”
Until that happens, immigrants in ICE custody will still be subject to deportation. If they’re infected with the coronavirus before then, they may unwittingly carry the disease back to their home countries, putting millions more at risk.