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"We are humans, and we have the right to live" - the spread of coronavirus in immigrant detention centers by Noah Pellettieri

June 25, 2020

It is a cruel irony that the novel coronavirus, initially the plight only of those wealthy enough to afford a plane ticket to China or Italy, now largely afflicts society’s most underserved. As with so many other public health crises, this pandemic has hewn largely along dispiritingly predictable racial and socioeconomic lines. Extensive scholarship has been generated documenting this phenomenon. [1] 


Yet the virtually untrammeled spread of coronavirus through immigrant detention centers nationwide has garnered scant attention on the national stage. Should they fail to take immediate and drastic action, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, or ICE, will be putting scores of lives at risk, both within detention centers and in the communities that support them. 


In the short term, ICE ought to display clemency and allow for the broader release of detainees for whom confinement poses significant health risks. Once the pandemic has abated, however, it is my sincere hope that this crisis will provide the impetus for a reexamination of our national priorities with regards to immigrant detention. 


As incessant epidemiological messaging has instructed us, social distancing and thorough testing are critical tools in abating the spread of coronavirus. Yet as the disease has taken hold in the United States, correctional facilities — where cramped conditions have made compliance with medical advice impossible — have emerged as hotbeds for community spread. [2] Immigrant detention centers, facilities housing those with matters pending before immigration courts and frequently operated by private contractors, have comprised much of this spread. 


ICE maintains that its “highest priority is the health and safety of those in our custody” and claims to have considered over 4,000 inmates with compromised health for early release. [3] Yet the agency’s actions betray a staggering indifference for the safety of its charges. 


Detainees at the Irwin County Detention Facility report that guards regularly roam the complex unmasked and that temperature checks for new detainees are infrequent. [4] Others at the La Palma Correctional Center in Arizona contend that they were forced to clean “knowing(ly) infected areas,” including “walls covered in feces,” without the provision of adequate protective equipment. [5] 

Furthermore, in spite of guidance from the Center for Disease Control, ICE has adopted the practice of “cohorting,” or confining together close contacts of an individual suspected to have coronavirus, thereby virtually assuring community spread. [6] In sum, detention centers appear to be exercising few of the precautions urged by health professionals to stanch the spread of coronavirus. 


In response to these reports of unsanitary conditions, lawyers and immigration advocates have produced a flurry of habeas corpus petitions, or writs contesting the legality of an individual’s detention, on behalf of detainees for whom continued confinement poses a particular danger. [7] Unfortunately, ICE has displayed scant sympathy towards these entreaties.


 For instance, government officers contested the release of Nilson Barahona-Marriaga, a 39-year old with hypertension and diabetes, claiming that a two-year-old charge for driving while intoxicated meant that “he has not established that he is not a danger to the community.” [8] More broadly, ICE has resisted calls for a widespread release of detainees, perhaps guessing that the uneventful release of a largely nonviolent immigrant population might detract from the legitimacy of its current confinement model. 


In spite of public criticism, these private contractors have remained opaque, infrequently or never providing updates to families on the status of their loved ones inside. [9] Officials at the South Texas ICE Processing Center in Pearsall, Texas, for example, have ignored summonses by county officials who wish to determine what the Center is doing to contain a budding outbreak within its walls. [10]


In light of the rampant spread of coronavirus within immigrant detention centers, it is worth asking how ICE came to operate such a vast portfolio of detention centers in the first place. Until the Reagan administration reshuffled our national immigration policies in the 1980s, facilities were used almost exclusively for short-term stays, mainly to expedite the processing of recent entrants. [11] 


Unfortunately, with the assistance of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, President Donald Trump has pursued an agenda of mass deportations with a zeal unparalleled in recent memory. While head of the Department of Justice, Sessions worked to overturn decades of legal precedent, mandating that immigration judges see over three cases a day and deeming that aliens seeking recourse from domestic abuse and gang violence in their native countries no longer qualified for protection under U.S. law. [12]


 These recent revisions have initiated a dramatic bloating in the population of immigrant detention centers. They are clogged with detainees with deportation cases pending before immigration judges, creating an ideal situation for the incubation of infectious disease. Compounding the problem, ICE has begun deporting many of these migrants without confirming that they are virus-free, needlessly promoting the spread of the virus across Latin America. [13]


Upon publication of The Jungle, his expose of appalling working conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking plants, Upton Sinclair is said to have remarked that “I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident, I hit it in the stomach.” [14] By this, he meant that his descriptions of poor sanitary conditions spurred legislative action where his exhortations for better working conditions failed to do so.


 It is my hope that perhaps the spread of coronavirus might motivate change in a similar manner. Even if we remain callous to the appalling humanitarian crisis that is immigrant detention in America today, perhaps our self-interested fear of future epidemiological chaos will motivate us to change the way that we look at deportation. 


[1] “COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups”, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last modified June 4, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/racial-ethnic-minorities.html.

[2] Timothy Williams and Danielle Ivory, “Chicago’s Jail Is Top U.S. Hot Spot as Virus Spreads Behind Bars, The New York Times, last modified April 23, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/08/us/coronavirus-cook-county-jail-chicago.html.

[3] Tammy La Gorce, “‘Everybody Was Sick’: Inside an ICE Detention Center”, The New York Times, last modified May 15, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/15/nyregion/coronavirus-ice-detainees-immigrants.html.

[4] Seth Freed Wessler, “Fear, Illness and Death in ICE Detention: How a Protest Grew on the Inside”, The New York Times, last modified June 8, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/04/magazine/covid-ice.html?searchResultPosition=2.

[5] Geneva Sands, “Begging for release, ICE detainees say they had to work in potentially contaminated areas as coronavirus spreads”, CNN, last modified June 12, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/12/politics/ice-detainees-work-infected-areas-coronavirus/index.html.

[6] Sofia Carratala and Tom Jawetz, “Federal Immigration Officials Must Take Immediate Action To Prevent Further Coronavirus Outbreaks at Detention Facilities”, Center for American Progress, last modified May 1, 2020, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/immigration/news/2020/05/01/484280/federal-immigration-officials-must-take-immediate-action-prevent-coronavirus-outbreaks-detention-facilities/.

[7] Matt Katz, “ICE Releases Hundreds Of Immigrants As Coronavirus Spreads in Detention Centers”, NPR, last modified April 16, 2020, https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/04/16/835886346/ice-releases-hundreds-as-coronavirus-spreads-in-detention-centers.

[8] Freed Wessler, “Fear Illness and Death”. 

[9] John Hudak and Christine Stenglein, “As COVID-19 spreads in ICE detention, oversight is more critical than ever”, Brookings, last modified May 14, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2020/05/14/as-covid-19-spreads-in-ice-detention-oversight-is-more-critical-than-ever/

[10]  Perla Trevizio, “COVID-19 cases at a Texas immigration detention center soared. Now, town leaders want answers”, last modified May 11, 2020, https://www.texastribune.org/2020/05/11/covid-19-cases-soar-texas-immigrant-detention-center-town-wants-answer/

[11] Freed Wessler, “Fear Illness and Death”. 

[12] Jonathan Blitzer, “Jeff Sessions Is Out, But His Dark Vision for Immigration Policy Lives On”, last modified November 8, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/jeff-sessions-is-out-but-his-dark-vision-for-immigration-policy-lives-on

[13] Caitlin Dickerson and Kirk Semple, “U.S. Deported Thousands Amid Covid-19 Outbreak. Some Proved to Be Sick”, last modified April 18, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/18/us/deportations-coronavirus-guatemala.html

[14] “Upton Sinclair”, WikiQuote, last modified June 9, 2020, https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Upton_Sinclair


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