#FreeThemAll: Every immigrant in ICE custody must be released to help halt COVID-19

Illustration of hands reaching for medical supplies through fence
Olivia Staser/Staff

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In March, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, a pandemic. The virus has spread rapidly and is “affecting practically every country, territory and area of the world,” according to UN News. COVID-19 spreads quickly, even from just being in proximity to others or by infected and uninfected people touching the same doorknob.

In mild cases, people display flulike symptoms. In severe cases, the virus attacks patients’ lungs, which can result in pneumonia and death. The scariest part about this virus is that people can be asymptomatic and infect anyone they interact with without even knowing it.

Almost every day, people are losing their jobs as businesses close down, relatives are dying in hospitals alone and health care workers have to work without proper protection. There is also little clarity on how long the pandemic and its accompanying social distancing will last. Yet U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, is still conducting immigration raids and detaining immigrants. This practice is inhumane because it puts countless lives at risk. ICE raids must stop and immigrants already in custody must be released in order to flatten the COVID-19 curve.

Since January, the number of cases has been growing so alarmingly that experts recommend protecting yourself from infection by isolating yourself and staying six feet away from others. Many states are placing stay-at-home orders, which allow people to leave their homes only for “essential” reasons, such as going to work or buying groceries, while also requiring them to wear masks and maintain a distance of six feet from others.

People in detention centers do not have this luxury, however. The conditions of these detention centers are already inhumane, confining hundreds of people in one facility with unsanitary conditions. Detainees have no personal space and only have limited access to hygienic materials — such as water, soap and hand sanitizer — to protect them from contracting the virus. There is also an added risk of infection from guards coming and going daily, putting both workers and detainees alike at an immensely high risk of infection. This kind of neglect for basic preventative measures essentially makes ICE detention centers virtual breeding grounds for more COVID-19 outbreaks.

The medical care in detention centers is already inadequate, and they are not equipped to protect the health of the immigrants in custody. Many ICE facilities have limited access to proper health care facilities because they are located in remote areas and only have a single on-site medical provider. In the event of an outbreak, detainees would need to be transported to the closest hospital, leaving fewer resources for actual members of that community. Several ICE detention centers do not even have access to test kits. As one former detainee who suffered a heart attack while in custody put it, “Doctor care is terrible there. … The worst there is.”

On March 19, two doctors employed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security wrote a letter to Congress asking that it implement “alternatives to detention to facilitate as much social distancing as possible.” John Sandweg, former director of ICE, announced March 23 to Democracy Now! that “the nature of these facilities is such that it’s really impossible to engage in the social distancing that we’re all practicing right now.” Despite the actions of these whistleblowers, ICE leadership has been slow to take action against the spread of COVID-19 in these facilities. The federal agency has even argued in court that concern over detainees contracting COVID-19 is “based on mere speculation.”

This is why the nonprofit organization the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, has filed 15 different lawsuits as of April 8 to release its clients from ICE’s custody, allowing them their basic human right to health through social distancing during a pandemic. Thirty people have been released from custody to safely quarantine at private residences thus far, but this is not enough. All detainees must be released in accordance with their basic human right to health. If you are looking for ways to help flatten the curve during this unprecedented global pandemic, please add your name to the ACLU’s petition to stop the spread of COVID-19 by releasing people in detention centers during this health crisis and call ICE yourself at the numbers found in the #FlattenICE call-in action guide.

As we all have seen in these last few weeks, COVID-19 targets everyone, and it will not go away easily. On top of being afraid of getting infected, immigrants fear being detained if they seek medical attention. ICE has instilled so much fear in the undocumented community, putting many people’s lives at risk during this pandemic. It is time we as a country live up to our claim of allegiance to equality and take the same actions to protect the lives of these immigrants as we are for our next-door neighbors. We all have a part to play to fight this pandemic — take action to fight for the safety of those who cannot.

Darlene Dickinson is co-director of Cal ACLU’s immigration response committee. Minerva Arebalo is assistant director of Cal ACLU’s immigration response committee.