Anti-immigrant think tanks are pushing for the U.S. to detain immigrants and asylum seekers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, even as prisoners stage hunger strikes and other protests in response to what they describe as deteriorating health conditions in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities.
These nativist groups are connected to Republican officials and claim to have been invited into policy-making discussions with the White House, underscoring the degree to which their views could affect U.S. policy and human lives during a health crisis that is unprecedented in the modern era.
By almost every measure, the COVID-19 pandemic (also known as coronavirus) has heightened every risk faced by those trapped in ICE’s prisons. Detained people, including children, have tested positive for it. ICE’s detained immigrants live in cramped spaces, increasing the likelihood that prisoners can transmit the contagious and sometimes fatal virus to one another without being able to defend against it.
People detained by ICE recently staged a hunger strike at a York County, Pennsylvania, facility to draw attention to their plight. On March 31, a federal judge called for the release of 10 immigrants who are susceptible to the virus due to health conditions from three Pennsylvania counties including York, calling their detainment “unconscionable and possibly barbaric.”
A group of women detained by ICE in Louisiana also created and published a video highlighting safety concerns relative to COVID-19 in late March. In the video, the women share a series of signs relaying a message about an Ecuadorian cellmate who they claim showed symptoms of COVID-19, potentially endangering those around her.
“We are 72 women one above the other,” part of the message read. “We have very much fear.”
ICE primarily detains people for civil offenses, rather than violent crimes. Many have not committed any crime at all. The agency currently holds roughly 35,000 people in prison, including roughly 6,000 people who seek asylum based on claims of being threatened in their countries of origin. On March 31, the Congressional Hispanic caucus urged ICE to release those imprisoned immigrants in light of the pandemic.
“ICE must release all detainees now before lives are lost,” Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas, the group’s chairman, said.
A spokesperson for ICE acknowledged the York County hunger strike to Hatewatch, noting that “ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference” and “does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers.” Regarding humanitarian concerns triggered as a result of the pandemic, ICE referred Hatewatch to a statement on their website noting that they are working “diligently to ensure employees are operating under the safest and most practical conditions to reduce the risk of exposure and prevent further spreading of COVID-19.”
'Release detention to where?'
The nativist think tanks created or supported by the late eugenicist John Tanton have used their influence to advise against freeing detainees, despite the gravity of the pandemic. Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), an anti-immigrant hate group with links to Trump’s immigration adviser Stephen Miller, published an opinion by former ICE official Dan Cadman titled “ICE Should Continue to Detain Removable Aliens” on March 26.
“No sooner had [ICE] announced the first case of a detainee testing positive for coronavirus than the Center began receiving calls and emails from media types asking if we agree that it now makes sense to release ‘vulnerable’ detainees,” Cadman wrote. “The answer was no before this latest development, and I have not reconsidered.”
At one point, Cadman appeared to imply that he is incapable of imagining a scenario in which ICE could even release an undocumented person on humanitarian grounds and asked, “Release detention to where?”
“If he (or she) is asymptomatic, would it be responsible for ICE to set that person loose on an unsuspecting community and trust that he or she will thereafter engage in self-quarantine rather than roaming hither and yon to avoid recapture later, while infecting everyone who has the misfortune to be in his or her proximity?” Cadman asked.
CIS pressed the argument again on April 1 with a post titled “Detainees Are Safer in ICE Detention,” written by Andrew Arthur, a former Department of Justice employee.
“Aliens who are released from ICE detention and thereafter contract the Wuhan virus will tax already burdened medical systems,” Arthur argued, referring to the subject of immigrants and COVID-19.
Arthur returned to the subject on April 6 in a post titled “Detention Health Care Works the Way It Is Supposed To.” He again referred to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan virus” and suggested that imprisoned immigrants who tested positive for it had adequate care, a claim which has been consistently disputed by rights groups, immigrants and their advocates.
“Releasing ICE detainees takes them out of a facility where sanitary protections are readily available, testing is accessible, quarantine can be accomplished, and treatment is guaranteed. If that is not joining forces with the current pestilence, I am not sure what is,” Arthur wrote. “Detention is the best resistance to pestilence.”
Hatewatch reached out to CIS for a comment about the health and safety of people detained by ICE during the COVID-19 pandemic in the context of what has been published to their website.
“I have forwarded your email to our attorneys,” a CIS spokesperson replied.
(CIS filed a lawsuit in federal court in January 2019 against former Southern Poverty Law Center President Richard Cohen and Heidi Beirich, the former director of the Intelligence Project, alleging that our classification of them as a hate group amounted to a violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. A judge dismissed that lawsuit in September. CIS has since appealed the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.)
Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), another anti-immigrant hate group with connections to administration officials, including Ken Cuccinelli, who is the Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security and the acting Principal Deputy Director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, has maintained a sharp, nativist tone during the pandemic.
“In a nutshell, the U.S. should be as worried about inadvertently admitting a pandemic virus into the United States as it is about unwittingly letting in terrorists, criminals and spies. The only problem is that, without proper counter-measures in place, pathogens can be much more difficult to detect than bad guys,” a March 2020 paper titled “Public Health Security is National Security” published on their website states.
Hatewatch reached out to FAIR for a comment regarding the health and safety of ICE detainees on April 1 but did not receive a reply. Two days later, on April 3, Matt O’Brien, the group’s research director, published a blog post on the FAIR-operated website ImmigrationReform.com titled “Alien Advocates Flipping the Script on Immigration Detainees and COVID-19.” The post argues that calls to release people trapped in detention during the pandemic constitute a “cynical exploitation of a crisis to advance the agenda of the open borders lobby.”
O’Brien does not address the capacity ICE facilities might or might not have to protect detained people in his post. He instead appears to suggest that if a person who is detained in ICE custody gets sick with COVID-19, it is an appropriate consequence of their choice.
“[Human beings detained in ICE custody] chose to engage in activity that violated the rule of law,” O’Brien writes. “Inherent in that choice is an element of risk – the risk of incarceration, the risk of deportation, and the dangers that accompany both temporary detention and removal from the U.S. When the open borders contingent asks law-abiding Americans, who also live in fear of COVID-19 infection, to insulate foreign law-breakers from both the threat of disease and the consequences of their disrespect for our immigration laws, it has gone a bridge too far.”
The White House takes its cues from other anti-immigrant groups and outlets who have chosen to ignore humanitarian concerns related to ICE detainees during the COVID-19 pandemic. VDARE, a white nationalist group Miller referenced in email correspondences with Breitbart News, has published more than 100 posts related to COVID-19, as Hatewatch reported on March 23. The VDARE posts are largely focused on the group’s perception that immigrants are dangerous to Americans. Some of the posts dabble in speculative race science.
Fox News, which is by all accounts President Trump’s preferred outlet for commentary, also published an op-ed on their website by former acting ICE Director Thomas Homan on March 29 titled “Coronavirus shouldn’t force ICE to release detained illegal immigrants.” The post argues that punishing the undocumented is of greater importance than addressing their demands related to health and safety.
“[America] can’t afford to let the fear of the coronavirus spreading end the rule of law in our country,” Homan writes, regarding the question of whether ICE detainees should be released in order to protect them from the virus. “If people can break the law without fearing any consequences we will see more people commit crimes – and that will pose a grave danger to us all.”
'A spark that could ignite'
Karlyn Kurichety, Supervisory Attorney for Al Otro Lado, provides counsel to detainees in California and has acquired an intimate knowledge of the conditions in ICE facilities. Kurichety told Hatewatch that these facilities are ill-equipped to defend the health of people living inside during the COVID-19 pandemic. She described cells with bunk beds inside, storing between four and eight people. The beds are typically closer than six feet together, which is the distance the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends people keep from one another in order to limit the spread of the virus.
“There’s no social distancing, because there is no way to socially distance,” Kurichety said by phone, referring to the practice of avoiding human contact to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Kurichety, who is working on a project to file parole requests on behalf of medically vulnerable detainees, told Hatewatch that guards at ICE facilities sometimes rotate with a frequency that her clients find alarming, given the number of new people entering and exiting these cramped spaces. Guards leave detention centers to go home to their families after their shift ends, potentially exposing her clients to virus when they return to work, Kurichety explained.
The virus is already creating problems like the one Kurichety described. Two employees of the Krome detention center in Miami, Florida, which houses people detained by ICE, tested positive for COVID-19 on April 6, according to a report by the Miami Herald. People who came in contact with those employees were isolated as a group in their housing units, the paper reported.
Kurichety also noted that her clients in ICE detention have no access to protective gear like masks or even cleaning products and are typically given one hygiene product, which is used to wash their face, hair and body. She said that her clients are now forced to use that catch-all hygiene product to clean their surroundings.
“Some guards are wearing masks and some of them aren’t,” Kurichety said. “It’s a spark that could ignite. There’s no way for detainees to keep themselves safe from getting the virus.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) joined the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana in filing an emergency motion for preliminary injunction in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on March 31, seeking the immediate release of asylum seekers presently in ICE custody in five Deep South states, including Louisiana, whose ICE detention population has soared in the past year.
The White House took steps to block asylum seekers from crossing the U.S.’s border with Mexico in March, citing the COVID-19 pandemic for its rationale. The move came after hate groups repeatedly urged the Trump administration to exploit the crisis for nativist ends, as Hatewatch previously reported.
ProPublica reported on April 2 that amidst the pandemic, asylum seekers are actively being turned back by Border Patrol agents without being granted an opportunity to make their legal case for the first time in 40 years.
“While in detention, I have never had access to hand sanitizer, anti-bacterial wipes, gloves, or masks,” a client from Cuba is quoted as saying in SPLC’s emergency motion, regarding conditions in her Louisiana detention center. “ICE and detention center officials are actively putting our lives at risk by denying us even the most basic hygiene and sanitation supplies.”
Photo illustration by SPLC (Photo by AP Images/Chris Carlson)