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Fighting for immigrant rights during a pandemic

As people across the country are confined to their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, little attention has been given to a group of people whose health is in danger because they are locked away from the outside world – people in immigrant detention centers.

As a coordinator for the SPLC’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative, I regularly visit the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center in Louisiana to ensure the rights of the people detained are protected. My work hasn’t stopped due to the pandemic. If anything, it has become more urgent amid reports of detained people and detention center employees elsewhere testing positive for COVID-19.

People held at Pine Prairie, like many of the 35,000 people held in U.S. immigrant detention centers, are worried. A quarantine has alternated from one dormitory, which can hold 60 to 70 people, to another, according to people detained at Pine Prairie. The quarantining began after a person was removed from a dorm, raising the question of whether that person had COVID-19 or just a case of the flu. The people held at Pine Prairie are not getting straight answers from officials.

What is clear is that these immigrant detention facilities are a tinderbox for the virus, and we must protect the people there.

As people across the country practice social distancing, the people held at Pine Prairie say there’s only about two to three feet between each bed in the dorms. There’s a lack of hand sanitizer and soap at various detention centers, as well. These facilities also hold many people over the age of 50, a population particularly at risk. What’s more, the medical treatment at detention centers is known to be inadequate – even fatal – during the best of times, much less a global pandemic.

We also know people continue to be transferred from one facility to another, a practice that risks spreading the virus throughout other detention centers.

These conditions are why the SPLC and our allies urged ICE to recognize that we’re facing a public health emergency. We collaborated with Americans for Immigrant Justice, Project South and Asian Americans Advancing Justice to demand an end to all facility-to-facility transfers to prevent the spread of the virus. We’re calling for tests of the current population in ICE custody, as well as all people entering ICE custody exhibiting symptoms or risk factors.

We’re urging officials to provide proper hygienic supplies at all detention and check-in facilities and to allow legal workers visiting detained people to bring gloves and disinfecting wipes into visitation rooms.

We’re also calling for the release of all people at high risk of the virus.

Too many people at these detention centers already feel as if they’ve been abandoned, left to face a pandemic on their own.

We cannot allow it to happen. Immigrant lives cannot be forgotten.

Just as I’ve continued my visits to Pine Prairie – visits where the detention center now requires that I sit six feet away from the person I’m interviewing, among other measures – the SPLC will continue its work. Whether it’s pushing for large-scale release of those most at risk or pursuing individual cases that may grant someone’s release through parole or bond, we will keep fighting alongside the communities we serve.

Immigrant justice cannot become a casualty of this pandemic.

Read this story to learn more about the conditions from the perspective of detained immigrants. 

Photo by AP Images/Ted S. Warren