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On March 16th, Donald Trump publicly issued updated, stricter guidelines for US citizens to stop the rapid spread of COVID-19. He urged Americans to stop meeting in groups of more than ten people, avoid indoor and outdoor venues where large amounts of citizens congregate, and enact home-based schooling across the country.
While many of us have already begun following through with social distancing, there are also thousands of human beings who have no choice but to stay put in overly crowded, devastating conditions. In the spaces they inhabit against their will, they are not allowed to regularly wash their hands with soap, they sleep in dirty and cramped rooms, and each day the crowds grow larger. I can only imagine that these people would love to follow Trump’s orders if they weren’t completely stuck where they are.
Not only is this an egregious human rights violation in the worst possible sense, but it also creates a horrifying scenario for a virus that seems to thrive in mass groups of immunocompromised people. And for the thousands of immigrants who are imprisoned in these appalling places, having their health prioritized by those in charge is far from a reality.
Thankfully, there are some courageous lawyers in New York City who are fighting to change this dangerous status quo. They join the ranks of prominent organizations like the ACLU who filed suit against ICE on Monday for the release of nine detainees held at a Washington state detention center who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. This current suit is part of a larger effort that will push for more prisoner releases and a national closure of immigration courts, which are believed to be breeding grounds for the coronavirus.
The Bronx Defenders, Brooklyn Defender Services, and the Legal Aid Society comprise New York City’s defender organizations, and they are providing free legal representation to detained immigrants through the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP). These incredible advocates are calling on ICE to release all people in their custody at detention facilities in the NYC area, so they can self-quarantine at home with their families. They are also requesting that ICE temporarily stop the aggressive and unnecessary arrest raids of immigrants in the tristate area and postpone appointments for people placed under ICE-supervised release. Their goal is simple and two-fold – to help immediately prevent the spread of COVID-19, and to protect the human rights of the people in these centers.
“The risk is that the virus will spread quickly in confined, dirty spaces, and many more people will get sick and even die than would have if these people could isolate at home with their families,” says Andrea Sáenz, Attorney-in-Charge of NYIFUP. “Our local ICE office simply rents space from county jails [and] cannot ‘distance’ people at all… Tens of thousands of people could become sick, and we can stop it.”
NYIFUP’s call to action comes on the heels of ICE failing to respond on March 6th to a demand letter which they and five New York correctional facilities were issued in order to obtain information about precautions being taken to prevent the internal spread of COVID-19.
“We have learned through the people we represent who are incarcerated in these jails that they are not receiving basic disinfectants, soap, hand sanitizer, or even toilet paper,” NYIFUP said in a joint statement. “These abysmal conditions and lack of response to our inquiries underscores that the ongoing incarceration of people by ICE during the global COVID-19 pandemic is not only a policy failure but an abhorrent health crisis that must be addressed immediately.”
According to lawyers like Sáenz, ICE has more than proven that it’s horribly unequipped to handle a national emergency of this magnitude. By refusing to protect these immigrants from suffering preventable deaths, ICE is almost certainly putting those who are elderly and have immune and respiratory conditions at imminent risk of contracting COVID-19.
“It’s frightening to me that this agency that used to detain 34,000 people a day four years ago, which was still too much, now detains over 50,000 people a day and could release tens of thousands of them tomorrow with check-in appointments – but won’t.”
Sáenz and the other advocates working alongside her are genuinely concerned for the health of the people that ICE is aggressively locking up and imprisoning in massive numbers. When it comes down to it, the organization’s appalling behavior is sending a strong message that these prisoners are potentially expendable. “This is a decision point for our country if we are going to see incarcerated and detained people’s lives as worthy of saving,” the lawyer says.
Since the vast majority of New York City detainees are longtime local residents, they have every assurance of finding safe shelter upon release. For those who have just arrived to the US and are seeking asylum, NYIFUP will be connecting them with willing sponsors. By halting these arrests, ICE has the ability to keep fewer people from contracting and spreading COVID-19 inside their facilities, and they can also keep families together at an incredibly difficult time. “As a mom myself, I know that it benefits the whole community to have parents and workers at home supporting their families instead of getting seriously ill and needing hospital resources,” Sáenz shares.
If reading this makes you want to do something about it too, you can call on your local elected officials to pressure ICE to stop their abusive practices, as well as donate money to non-profit organizations that represent detained immigrants and bail funds to help prisoners get out of these dangerous situations. And please remember that how we collectively act could mean life or death for not just thousands of immigrants, but millions of people in our country.
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