Archive for category: Immigration
In his article on developments in the Democratic Socialists of America as the organization approaches its 2021 convention, Andrew Sernatinger states: “A priority campaign over immigration received overwhelming support from delegates [at the last convention, two years ago] but never . . .
In March 2020, the ACLU of Southern California sued the Department of Homeland Security to get people vulnerable to COVID-19 out of Adelanto, an immigration detention center east of Los Angeles. Among them was Martin Vargas Arellano, a 54-year-old Mexican citizen who suffered from diabetes, high blood pressure, and hepatitis C. A federal judge quickly ordered Vargas released, but put the order on hold when a plan for Vargas to go move to a Los Angeles community center fell through. In December, Vargas, still detained, tested positive for COVID-19 before becoming severely ill.
On March 15, the ACLU learned via a weekly update in a different lawsuit that Vargas had been released 10 days earlier. ICE hadn’t told Margaret Hellerstein, Vargas’ attorney at the LA-based Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, who had no idea where her client was. On March 16, she filed a missing persons report, the San Bernardino Sun reported. A law enforcement official investigating her report told Hellerstein that Vargas’ last known address was a Southern California hospital. She soon learned that Vargas had been dead for more than a week. He’d had a stroke on March 3, been released by ICE two days later, then died three days after that.
By releasing Vargas just before he died, ICE skirted its legal obligation to report when someone dies in its custody. To this day, ICE’s webpage states lists no deaths among the 270 detainees it says have tested positive at Adelanto. Stories like Vargas’ are at the center of a new ACLU report on the cost COVID-19 has had on people in immigration detention. Since the start of the pandemic, the organization has filed more than 40 lawsuits that have led to the release of more than 800 people from detention.
According to ICE’s own statistics, 14,057 people have tested positive for COVID-19 while in the agency’s custody. As of Sunday, a staggering 1,906 of the roughly 16,700 people in detention right now are being monitored for active COVID-19 infections. If the United States had a similar infection rate, there’d be nearly 40 million active infections at the moment, as opposed to the roughly 560,000 that have been recorded over the past two weeks. Eunice Cho, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU, notes that the number of people ICE is detaining has been rising in recent weeks, although it remains far below the record of more than 55,000 people reached during the Trump administration.
Officially, nine people in ICE custody have died from complications from COVID-19. But that doesn’t include people like Vargas or Óscar López Acosta, who died shortly after being released from the Morrow County County Jail in Ohio last year.
Although the United States has so many extra vaccine doses that New York City is now vaccinating international tourists in Times Square, ICE has not announced a comprehensive plan for vaccinating the people in its custody. “It simply boggles the mind,” Cho says about the failure to do so. The result is rapid transmission of the virus inside detention centers at a time when cases are falling across the country.
The ACLU report calls on ICE to make a number of changes to protect people from the pandemic. Foremost among them is closing detention centers that were opened in recent years, as well as those with records of abuse. Instead of detention, the ACLU wants ICE to use alternatives like community-based case management programs.
Another set of recommendations focuses on transparency. ICE, for example, refuses to say how many people in its custody have been hospitalized with COVID-19. “Without that information, we’re never going to get a sense of the actual scale of very serious suffering that happened as a result of COVID-19 and ICE detention,” Cho explains.
The agency also doesn’t proactively report when it uses force against people in detention who protest their treatment. When it does confirm such uses of force to reporters, it uses sanitized language—staff used pepper spray and “detainees became complaint” is a common construction—that obscures the horror of what people actually endured. The ACLU is asking ICE to start reporting those uses of force, as well as other events like hunger strikes.
The bulk of the new report is devoted to letting people who experienced the pandemic from detention share what they endured. One of them is Oscar Xirum Sanchez, a 42-year-old husband and father of two young girls, ages 3 and 6. Xirum tested positive for COVID-19 in October during an outbreak at Michigan’s Calhoun County Correctional Facility. He was sick for a month and ran a fever as high as 106 degrees. He remembers being told by a nurse, “You think you have a fever, but you do not. You are not sick.”
Oscar Xirum Sanchez with his wife and daughters.
For the first 20 days he was sick, he lived among fellow detainees. Then, during an 11-day quarantine, he was not allowed to shower. (In the early days of the pandemic, I spoke to many people in detention who hid COVID-19 symptoms because it would have meant being sent to solitary confinement.) Xirum was eventually released as a result of an ACLU lawsuit. He still has trouble breathing. The report states that his 6-year-old cries whenever he leaves home because she’s afraid he won’t come back.
Aaron Hope, who came to the United States from Trinidad and Tobago when he was nine years old, is representative of what happened to those who demanded protection from the virus. Like many people in detention, he learned about how quickly COVID-19 was spreading while watching TV news in a crowded unit—60 people in his case—in which it was impossible to practice social distancing. He went on a hunger strike to demand hand sanitizer, soap, and other cleaning supplies. In response, guards put him in solitary confinement for two weeks.
“When they took me to [solitary], an officer said, ‘I remember you, you were giving us a hard time about COVID. I knew you would be in here soon,’” Hope recalls in the report. “And I thought: I was giving you a hard time? Because I care about my rights and my life?”
Adebodun Idowu, a 57-year-old Nigerian man with diabetes and high blood pressure, became infected with COVID-19 while detained at the Clinton County Correctional Facility in Pennsylvania. The clinic at the facility told him to drink water then sent him back to his unit. From there, he was put in isolation.
After five days alone, ICE released him to live with his family. His health continued to get worse and, after an ambulance took him to a hospital, a doctor confirmed he had COVID-19. He remained hospitalized for a month. At times, his doctors thought he might die. If he hadn’t survived, his death would have never appeared in ICE’s statistics.
“This is a list I would have expected out of Bill Barr or Jeff Sessions,” says former longtime immigration judge
The Biden administration is struggling to address the flow of migrant children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without their parents, many fleeing extreme violence, poverty and natural disasters in their home countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. News reports show more than 3,500 children were detained at the border in just the first nine days of March, with many being held longer than the legal limit of 72 hours. “We can call it a crisis. We can call it a surge,” says Aura Bogado, senior investigative reporter at Reveal. “What we shouldn’t call it is a surprise.”
Dozens of immigrant women detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia have joined a class-action lawsuit against ICE over allegations they were subjected to nonconsensual and invasive gynecological procedures and surgeries that were later found to be unnecessary, and in some cases left them unable to have children. The lawsuit cites sworn testimony from at least 35 women about their treatment by Mahendra Amin, a physician in Ocilla, Georgia, and describes retaliation and threats of deportation for speaking out. “We have more than 40 women who filed sworn testimony in court despite consistent attempts by ICE to silence them,” says Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director at Project South and co-counsel for women at Irwin who say they were subjected to these procedures. We also speak with two women who say they underwent unnecessary medical procedures: Wendy Dowe, who was deported to Jamaica after she says her fallopian tubes were removed without her consent, and Elizabeth, who is detained at the Irwin County ICE jail and who says she faced retaliation for speaking up about her unnecessary medical treatment.
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At Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, New Jersey, at least six people who are being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have entered their 25th day of a hunger strike. The detainees are protesting inhumane conditions which make them vulnerable to coronavirus. They are demanding to be released so that they can await the outcome of their deportation hearings from outside of jail. Four of the detainees are now unconscious, and protesters are ramping up pressure on the jail to release them. Nearly 100 demonstrators gathered outside the jail on Sunday afternoon, and people have been protesting daily in solidarity with the detainees since November 27.
Conditions at Bergen County Jail are deplorable. Although it has not yet experienced a coronavirus outbreak, crowded living conditions with insufficient access to hygiene makes the facility extremely vulnerable. Detainees claim that the heating has been shut off, their medical needs are not addressed, and they have to resort to drinking water from toilet bowls due to being denied drinking water.
These dire and outright dangerous conditions in jails and detention facilities across the country predate both the coronavirus pandemic and the Trump administration, and Democrats and Republicans alike have upheld them. The ACLU reports that despite the huge increase in immigration detention in recent years, “there are no regulations or enforceable standards” for medical and mental health treatment, access to phones and other means of communication, legal services, or library materials. As a result, immigrants are routinely denied even these basic rights. Detainees at Bergen County Jail have complained that the jail is rat- and mold-infested, leaving detainees susceptible to myriad diseases and infections.
With this in mind, fears of a deadly coronavirus outbreak are warranted. Over 7,000 ICE detainees have been infected across the country, and research has shown that detainees are infected at 13 times the rate of the general population. These numbers are likely much higher due to lack of transparency, low testing rates, and abysmal compliance with health guidelines. Detainees in Alabama were put in solitary confinement for merely asking to be tested.
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This is far from the first hunger strike among ICE detainees. Since the pandemic began in March, around 2,500 people have refused food as part of at least 42 different hunger strikes, up from 1,600 over the last four years. These strikes have ramped up as detainees rightfully protest the dangerous conditions that make facilities a hotbed of coronavirus infection. Resistance has been met with brutal repression, including pepper spray and rubber bullets, while officers have subjected hunger strikers to forced feeding and hydration.
Bergen County Jail is one of several jails in New Jersey that have lucrative contracts with ICE to house detainees at their facilities. Between 2015 and 2018, ICE sent over $150 million to three counties in New Jersey, all of them controlled by Democratic politicians. Bergen County Jail received over $12 million from ICE in 2018 alone. Local governments see ICE contracts as a source of much-needed revenue, and the private corporations which serve the facilities profit handsomely from detainees being locked up for as long as possible. These perverse incentives encourage counties across the United States to fill their jails with ICE detainees, including those who are merely awaiting the verdict of their deportation trial.
Workers must show solidarity with these detainees on hunger strike and demand their release. But we cannot stop there: ICE is a violent, oppressive arm of the state that, like the police, must be abolished. The agency works tirelessly to brutalize Black and Brown people, and during the coronavirus pandemic, it has continued detentions and deportations, putting lives at risk. We must also demand the decriminalization of border crossing, a moratorium on deportations, and full rights for migrants.
Eddie Conway talks to Azadeh Shahshahani, Project South Legal and Advocacy Director and lawyer for Dawn Wooten, a nurse at Irwin County Detention Center and the whistleblower who sounded the alarm on ICE abuses, including the case of ICE detainees being forced to have hysterectomies while in custody. Six of the victims who filed complaints have now been deported. Seven more women may be deported soon, resulting in the loss of critical witnesses.
See Conway’s September report on alleged abuses at Irwin County Detention Center below:
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