The Trump administration is failing to adequately protect tens of thousands of asylum-seekers and migrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), who are held in over 200 detention centers across the United States.
In recent years, the use of immigration detention has ballooned. Today, tens of thousands of immigrants, including thousands of asylum-seekers and families with children, are held in Department of Homeland Security (DHS) facilities throughout the country while they fight for their right to stay in the United States. Immigration detention serves as a form of punishment against people solely on the basis of their status and penalizes people who are fleeing persecution.
ICE has ample discretion to release all people in immigration detention. Yet, disregarding the cries of detained immigrants, medical experts, and advocates, it has failed to do so. Since the onset of the pandemic, COVID-19 has spread throughout detention facilities: as of October 2020, at least eight people had died after contracting the virus in detention, and over 5,000 detained people had tested positive for the virus. Experts have estimated that the virus is likely spreading rates much higher than DHS has publicized, a fear which has been borne out in the few facilities where ICE has engaged in mass testing: for example, in August, 90% of people detained at the privately operated ICE facility in Farmville tested positive for COVID-19.
THE HUMAN COST
Steven Tendo is a 35-year-old pastor and asylum-seeker who fled from torture and other severe human rights violations in Uganda and requested asylum in the United States. Since December 2018, he has been detained at an immigration detention facility in Los Fresnos, Texas. He is at imminent risk of return to danger in Uganda, where he fears he will be killed, while his health is deteriorating from inadequate medical care for diabetes amidst a COVID-19 outbreak in the Los Fresnos detention facility. Amnesty is demanding that authorities stop Pastor Steven’s deportation and release him immediately on parole while he continues to fight for the right to seek asylum.
Both people in detention and their lawyers have shared harrowing details of ICE’s reckless endangerment of people in its custody, in violation of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) standards on the prevention of COVID-19 in places of detention. ICE and its detention facilities have failed to provide detainees with sufficient soap and sanitizer or adequate social distancing. Additionally, ICE has not abided by CDC standards for quarantining and medical isolation, instead “cohorting” people presumed to be positive for the virus, a form of treatment one medical expert has likened to “COVID-19 torture.” As COVID-19 cases increase exponentially across the United States, detained people have launched hunger strikes in multiple ICE immigration detention facilities, demanding to be released, and have often been met with brutal repression by guards and security personnel.
Now, ICE’s detention practices are exacerbating a crisis beyond U.S. borders: tens of thousands of people have been deported during the COVID-19 pandemic, including hundreds of people who tested positive after contracting the virus after being detained in unsafe and unsanitary US detention facilities. Deported people have reported facing exposure to the virus, rights-abusing quarantine regimes in their countries of return, and stigma.
The U.S. government has the authority and obligation to release all people in immigration detention and to halt deportations. ICE’s unnecessary and punitive detention of migrants and asylum seekers, based solely on their migration status, constitutes ill-treatment and discriminatory denial of the right to health, particularly for older people and other individuals at higher risk of serious harm or death if they contract the virus. The arbitrary detention of migrants and asylum seekers only pushes them deeper into harm’s way, in unhygienic and unsafe environment.
This public health crisis presents an opportunity for the United States to reform its practice of needless, costly, and punitive immigration detention, which has caused tremendous human suffering and has caused a crisis of contagion during the pandemic.
- Immediately release people in ICE detention, beginning with populations at particular risk of experiencing serious harm upon contracting COVID-19, including the elderly and those with underlying conditions. For the limited time people must remain in detention, ensure appropriate measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within detention facilities, such as widespread access to testing and treatment and adequate access to soap, sanitizer and disinfecting materials. Those who are released from detention in light of the COVID-19 pandemic must not automatically be re-detained once the crisis lifts, and families must be released together.
- Cease the use of immigration detention as a default response, and end the involvement of private prisons in immigration detention. Robustly expand use of community-based case management support where necessary, including the Family Case Management Program, while ensuring they do not simply operate as detention by another name. Issue guidance clarifying that custody alternatives meet the definition of “custody” under the mandatory detention statute (INA § 236(c)).
- Place a temporary moratorium on deportations and other forced returns in light of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the architecture of unlawful policies that are powering many deportations. The moratorium should remain in place for the duration of the pandemic and until the administration has had an opportunity to review and address the multitude of anti-asylum policies in place.
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Advocacy Director, Americas