-Bria Yazic, Community Voices for Immigrant Rights

Image from ACLU.org

 

Living in Vermont, we’ve all watched with horror as COVID-19 has spread like wildfire through the Burlington Health and Rehab Center. The presence of COVID-19 in a place where social distancing is impossible endangers everybody inside, especially those who are medically high-risk. And the virus didn’t materialize from within.  It spread to the Rehab Center from a COVID-positive person who entered from outside and probably had no idea they had the virus.

A similar story can be told for immigration detention centers throughout the country. A jail or detention center is a prime environment for rapid spread of infectious disease, and continuing to house people within them is dangerous for all involved. The increasing number of cases at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans, Vermont demonstrates this reality. The Strafford County House of Corrections in New Hampshire is a county jail that contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It reserves up to 100 beds for New England immigrants being detained by ICE, including Vermonters. The vast majority of immigrants held at Strafford have lived in the United States for some time, with established communities and homes.

Every day, staff members who may be unwitting carriers of COVID-19 enter and exit ICE detention centers. Transfers of people between facilities still occur constantly. Under normal circumstances, transfers are a problem because they distance immigrants from their lawyers. During a pandemic, transfers can be deadly. In 2018-2019, transfers caused a mumps outbreak that occurred in 57 facilities across the country. Five mumps cases quickly ballooned to 898, plus 33 cases amongst staff members. Even now, there is no indication that the mumps outbreak has been fully contained.

In the face of COVID-19, our normal lives have been upended by measures to mitigate spread of the virus. However, ICE has not taken similar precautions. Testimonies from detainees report that within ICE facilities, social distancing is impossible to enforce with so many people in close quarters. Generally, they are housed in large dormitory-style rooms on bunks. Sanitizer, masks, and gloves are either reserved for employees or not used at all. In Louisiana, 44 men were quarantined together when it was determined they were possibly exposed to COVID-19; they were not told beforehand why they were being sequestered. ICE has also deported immigrants back to their home countries who are still under quarantine for COVID-19, risking a greater international spread of the virus. Already the United States has deported two COVID-positive men. When detainees have attempted to protest the lack of appropriate precautions, they have often been pepper sprayed or otherwise punished.

ICE has clearly demonstrated that it does not care for the people within its custody or nearby communities. A breakout of COVID-19 in an ICE facility would not only take lives of detainees and staff members, it would also put additional strain on nearby hospitals, making it harder for medical workers to care for all in need. Even as jails and prisons throughout the country are increasingly releasing inmates because of COVID-19, ICE is reluctant to do so. Multiple lawsuits have been filed by advocacy organizations demanding release of asylum seekers and other immigrants who are medically high-risk. As of Tuesday April 7th, ICE has released 160 detainees, mostly on account of those lawsuits. About 34,000 people are currently detained by ICE, 60% of whom do not have a criminal record of any kind. Already, both ICE employees and detainees across the country have tested positive for COVID-19. It is only a matter of time before the virus reaches the Strafford County House of Corrections, where Vermont residents are held.

Although this facility does not have the same track record of egregious abuses that other detention centers have, Strafford is not taking appropriate action when it comes to COVID-19. SangYeob Kim, immigration staff attorney at the ACLU of New Hampshire, recently spoke with a client who is detained at Strafford. The client informed him that new people are coming in each day, there are no hand sanitizer or masks available to detainees, and there is no COVID-19 testing or medical follow-up being performed. Inmates and detainees are now being locked within their cells for 22 hours per day. While this may be a method for reducing contact between people, it is inhumane to lock people within cells for the vast majority of their days, for weeks on end. People who are not a safety risk to their communities should be allowed to go home during this crisis. Strafford County has taken some steps toward releasing non-violent and medically high-risk inmates. They must demand that ICE do the same for the immigrants housed in their facility.

A COVID-19 breakout will be a death sentence for many held at the Strafford County jail, including Vermonters. Immigrants must be released from Strafford before a breakout happens.

Please consider signing this petition demanding that ICE release immigrants detained at Strafford County Department of Corrections.

And please join Community Voices for Immigrant Rights in protesting the continued presence of ICE in our state. We will hold a Honk Protest at the ICE Data Center in Williston on Friday, April 17th. See our Facebook page for more details.


 

Sources:

  1. 28 more inmates, five additional staff test positive for Covid-19 at St. Albans prison
  2. Locals call for release of detained immigrants amid COVID-19 fears
  3. Notes from the Field: Mumps in Detention Facilities that House Detained Migrants — United States, September 2018–August 2019
  4. “Don’t let us die”: Women in ICE custody plead for release amid coronavirus pandemic
  5. ‘We’re gonna die’: migrants in US jail beg for deportation due to Covid-19 exposure
  6. 2nd deported Guatemalan tests positive for coronavirus
  7. Immigrants Afraid Of The Coronavirus Outbreak Are Protesting Inside ICE Facilities
  8. AG William Barr expediting release of vulnerable inmates at federal prisons swamped by coronavirus
  9. State prisons releasing inmates due to coronavirus as positive tests rise
  10. ‘Terrified of dying’: Immigrants beg to be released from immigration detention as coronavirus spreads
  11. Sixth ICE detainee tests positive for COVID-19 as hunger strikes begin
  12. Five migrants test positive for COVID-19 in ICE detention centers in Pennsylvania
  13. A look inside ICE facility at Strafford County jail
  14. Advocacy Instructions
  15. Isolation in isolation: Inmates, jails face new challenges due to COVID-19
  16. How N.H. Attorneys, County Jails, And State Prisons Are Managing Coronavirus