COVID- 19 as a Threat to Immigrants in Detention

COVID-19 As a Threat to Immigrants In Detention  

In late March, 2020 an immigration jail detainee tested positive for the deadly Corona Virus (COVID-19) at a New Jersey jail.  Shortly following this confirmed case the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of immigrants in two Maryland jails demanding release of those persons most at risk (people over 60 or with underlying medical conditions) for developing severe symptoms or dying if they get Covid-19.  Another five detainees have tested positive for Covid 19 at two detention centers in Pennsylvania. In San Diego, the ACLU has just filed on April 3d,  a lawsuit asking for release of four detainees with no criminal backgrounds to be immediately released to their families because their underlying medical conditions (leukemia, lung disease, HIV) puts them at risk for a deadly contraction of the virus. 

It doesn’t matter that COVID-19 is highly contagious and that it kills older or sick people fast.  DHS and ICE appear not to have suspended their activities to hunt down the undocumented residents, jail them and treat them, along with asylum seekers, like criminals.

Most detainees are being housed in for-profit detention centers.   The conditions are generally quite poor in those places.  In some the conditions are inhumane and the medical care inferior. 

Immigration detention under Trump is cruel for the migrant and profitable for the corporations that run them on taxpayer dollars. 

Reading about the recent lawsuits against ICE takes me back to when I was actively working as a volunteer in 2018 and 2019 at the Karnes City detention center helping asylum seekers prepare for their credible fear interviews. Often migrants arrive at a detention center having traveled hundreds or thousands of miles with little to no resources.  They’ve survived trauma and stress.  They’re often sick and barely managing their lives with a depleted immune system. 

The personal stories were never easy to hear.  Like the case of a man and his son trying to escape death threats from MS-18 gangs because he refused on religious grounds to work for them; or a woman barely over 20 who left the Congo with her family because of political persecution against her dad; they’d traveled through ten countries.  She was scared and alone.  When they got to the Mexican border her father was taken to another center, hundreds of miles away.  Her mother was stuck in South America because her younger brother got too sick to travel. 

We know that the immigration system was already flawed prior to 2017. Now the system is just cruel and much of the detention is not even necessary.   Even under normal circumstances, detention in places run by entities like GeoGroup, Inc. has been a death sentence for innocent, traumatized or sick people, including children. 

These lawsuits are an attempt to bring some humanity into the system.  As one of the plaintiff lawyer’s stated, “in normal circumstances, ICE has proven time and again that it is unable to protect the health and safety of detained people.”   

We can only hope that the courts will hear the evidence in support of a restraining order to protect the public health and safety of those who are working or being housed in an immigration jail. 

Elvia ArriolaMember, WOB Board of Director, April 8, 2020


Writer, attorney, Lawprof Emerita from Northern Illinois University.
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