By Nithya Nathan‑Pineau, Policy Attorney & Strategist at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center
While the COVID-19 pandemic shut down daily life for many Americans sheltering at home, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents continued their daily work of incarcerating and deporting immigrants and shamefully furthered the spread of COVID-19 around the world. ICE has spread COVID-19 across detention centers in the United States by regularly transferring immigrants from the criminal legal system to the immigration system, and then continuing to transfer immigrants in their custody around their web of detention centers. These transfers endanger the health of all people as COVID-19 tears through jails and detention centers. The problem goes beyond the United States, as The New York Times reported on how ICE has been exporting the COVID-19 virus to other parts of the world by deporting people infected with the virus. ICE must halt transfers and deportations and free incarcerated immigrants to take a meaningful step towards stopping the spread of COVID-19.
ICE exploits the resources of local and state law enforcement to obtain a steady flow of new people to lock up in detention centers. In response to the pandemic, many local law enforcement agencies have tried to reduce the population in their jails. Unfortunately, for immigrants this means that many of them were transferred to ICE instead of actually being released. The ICE enforcement regime is deeply entangled with state and local law enforcement through programs such as Secure communities, 287(g) and the Criminal Alien program. The practice of moving people from jail to jail has been condemned by medical and immigration experts as the key method of spreading the virus. Immigration jails keep people in crowded and unsanitary conditions and the spread of COVID-19 has been exacerbated by these frequent transfers.
This week, ICE reported yet another death due to COVID-19. The link between transfers within the ICE system and spread of the pandemic is clear in the case of the Farmville detention center in Virginia, where 70% of the people detained there tested positive for the virus. At the beginning of June, ICE transferred people from Florida and Arizona, COVID-19 hotspots, to the Virginia detention center. Detainees have reported that ICE has failed to provide basic sanitation and medical care and have told their attorneys that they fear they will all die inside the Farmville detention center. This tragedy could have been avoided if ICE had stopped transfers and reduced the population by releasing immigrants to shelter in place with their families and loved ones.
ICE has also contributed to the spread of COVID-19 on a global scale due to the continuation of deportation flights. It has been confirmed that ICE has deported people infected with COVID-19 to at least 7 countries. Witness at the Border released a report this week, detailing the thousands of domestic and international flights that ICE used to transfer immigrants around the country and to deport them during the first 6 months of this year. Their report states that over 200 people infected with COVID have been deported to at least 11 countries. A global pandemic requires a coordinated global response to control the spread of the virus. Deporting people who have been diagnosed with a highly infectious and potentially lethal virus to countries with weak public health infrastructure has exacerbated the disastrous effects COVID-19 is having on the global community.
The United States’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic should include stopping entanglement between the immigration and criminal legal systems, halting transfers, and ceasing all deportations. ICE must stop operating with cruelty as their guiding principle, and listen to the medical and public health experts who have provided key steps they could implement to stop the devastation.