Protecting immigrants from COVID-19

No one should ever have to experience life in an immigration detention center—but especially during this pandemic, when forced proximity and a lack of access to medical care are even more dangerous. Today, an estimated 38,000 people  are locked up in detention centers across the United States. Many have fled violence or extreme poverty in their native countries and are seeking refuge. Others have lived in the U.S. for years and have deep roots in our communities.  

In New Jersey, AFSC provides legal representation to hundreds of people in detention every year. In the midst of this pandemic, our efforts are more urgent than ever.  

While all AFSC staff are working from home, our attorneys and legal assistants continue to advocate for the release of our clients from detention—and partnering with our organizing and advocacy staff to urge government officials to do everything in their power to protect incarcerated people from COVID-19. We also increased the hours of our detention hotline from four hours to 40 hours per week to respond to questions and concerns from clients and their families. 

Over the past week, our legal team has helped secure the release of nine people from immigrant detention. As I write this, one client who was particularly vulnerable is just hours away from being reunited with his family. 

While we celebrate victories like this, our work continues to free the many more people who continue to face hazardous conditions in detention. There are a growing number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 among detainees and staff at jails and detention centers around the state. Many of our clients and their families have told us how scared and concerned they are right now—and how much they wanted to be reunited during this public health crisis. 

We recently heard from a mother whose son is being detained at Essex County Jail. She suffers from high blood pressure, and she’s worried about her condition in addition to the health of her son. "I am so incredibly anxious about what's happening,” she told us when she called our hotline. “I ask that officials give detainees a chance to be released from the detention center. Please do anything to stop the spread of the coronavirus in the detention center. I just ask for compassion for my son."

Detention centers have long track records of human rights abuses and inhumane conditions. And recent history has demonstrated how Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—which relies heavily on medical service contractors—is ill-equipped to stop disease from spreading in its facilities. Between September 2018 and August 2019, detention centers faced a mumps epidemic, which spread rapidly from five cases to 900 cases and accounted for one third of all mumps cases in the U.S. This is evidence of ICE and its contractors’ inability to meet the needs of immigrant detainees even in an outbreak of a small scale, let alone a pandemic like COVID-19.

Last month, AFSC and partners sent a letter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, calling on the agency to exercise its discretion and authority to make the right decision to save lives. We demanded that ICE release all immigrant detainees in their custody in the state of New Jersey and suspend all check-ins, enforcement activity, and deportations and transfers of detainees. We’re calling for community-based alternatives to detention that will allow people to live freely and with their families—and protect their due process rights by ensuring they have access to their attorneys and other critical resources. 

It’s critical that as communities across the country are coming together to keep each other healthy and safe, we must ensure that we extend that care to immigrants and all people in detention centers, jails, and prisons across the U.S. As this public health crisis continues to grow, New Jersey and other states must do the right thing and take immediate steps to protect the health, human rights, and dignity of incarcerated people, their loved ones, and communities.    

Read more: Editorial: ‘They’re going to kill us in here’ – Or will ICE finally act?(