Q+A: Joelle Lingat, AFSC detention attorney

Since the beginning of the spread of COVID-19, AFSC, partners, and communities have called for the release of people locked up in immigration detention centers, jails, and prisons–where close proximity to others and lack of access to adequate healthcare are especially dangerous in a pandemic.

Joelle Lingat is a detention attorney for AFSC in New Jersey, representing clients detained at Essex County Correctional Facility and Elizabeth Detention Center. Many immigrants in detention are being held as they await hearings for applications for asylum; others are locked up simply for immigration-related issues. As part of AFSC’s legal services team, Joelle helps clients fight their cases so they can stay in the U.S. where they belong.

In May, AFSC filed a lawsuit against Elizabeth Detention Center, calling for the immediate release of all detained individuals due to the facility’s lack of unsanitary and insufficient conditions during this pandemic. There are currently 18 COVID-19 cases at EDC and eight cases at Essex County Correctional Facility, with worries that these reported numbers are underestimated. “A number of our clients have been released through bond, requests for release, and habeas petitions–all possible with the contributions of our team,” Joelle says.


How has your work changed due to the pandemic? What obstacles has COVID-19 created?

Access to our clients has been extremely difficult. Phone call conversations are very limited, with no privacy. The infrastructure is not there to fully exercise the due process rights of our clients. For both facilities, we understand that there shouldn’t be in person meetings, but because there are none, the quality of the information we receive or the trust that we establish, the ways that we can support them for a case are extremely limited.


Tell me about your clients. What are they struggling with?

I have clients with health problems, making them vulnerable and susceptible to the virus –all being denied release. What a lot of detainees are experiencing now is an extreme feeling of hopelessness and abandonment. If they didn’t have depression before, there’s definitely going to be mental health ramifications in the future. We think about how bad it is impacting all of us and we’re just at home. So, what more for people who are detained? A lot of people are being put into quarantine, where they’re only allowed out for one hour or less every day. The rest of the day, they’re in a cell by themselves. If someone is sick, if someone has mental health concerns, you can’t put them in isolation and expect them to get better. The body will not heal if the soul is in pain.

Unfortunately, someone in the woman’s dorm in Elizabeth attempted to take her life, making the facility put her on suicide watch. Her bed is made of plastic and she’s put into a very small space. Regardless of the comfort, her complaint is on the dead and alive ants that surround her bed and body. This is where they put her to recover from potential suicide.


What are their family members going through?

It’s extremely difficult on families right now. They’re not able to contact their families regularly, there’s no contact visits, so they haven’t seen them in several months. A lot of these people also rely upon the person who is detained as the primary source of income. Especially now during a time of COVID, not only are we attorneys coordinating the cases of the detained, but we’re also trying to connect their families to sources for groceries, medications, and housing assistance because this is impacting them exorbitantly. Not only the mental and emotional impact of being separated from a loved one and thinking that they can very easily die inside, but their own survival is at risk because they don’t have their cohesive family unit to advocate for their survival, to do the work they need to survive as a family. 

It’s like a car–you have the wheels, engine, the electrical, but it’s like one of the wheels taken from under the car. How can it run if the whole unit isn’t intact?


What keeps you and your team motivated? What gets you through the day?

Everyone is so dedicated and inspirational–so determined in empowering our clients. For our team, the reason why we work so well and close is because we humble ourselves to the power of our clients and their stories. What gives me fuel to keep going is my client having the courage to stand up for their rights. It’s a hard decision to make, but they take a stand and even if they are immigrants or don’t have documentation, they have a right to humanity, to live, to not fear for their lives every day. For me, that is so inspirational and pushes me beyond anything.


What do readers and advocates need to know about people in detention? How can they help?

Right now, there are in-person caravans and rallies that practice social distancing. There are also virtual actions–phone zaps to call officials or social media campaigns to follow. If there is an extra room in a house, you can host someone who was recently released for 14 days as they quarantine before going home. Donations to AFSC, volunteering to review medical records and evaluations, writing letters to support, even driving them to hearings. Small gestures make a huge difference.


Take action today: Tell your governor and ICE to protect incarcerated people from COVID-19!