Release Detainees Now

education and action Apr 14, 2020

By Christie Black, senior director of the engage limb over sustained advocacy, and Carmen Cutler, a sustained action specialist.

COVID-19 has changed the way we live, work, and learn in the United States, in the all-important effort to slow the spread of this virus. Difficult as these changes have been, most of us are fortunate to be able to socially distance and practice proper hygiene. Inside Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers, however, conditions remain dangerously unsanitary. 

As COVID-19 continues to present new and pressing needs, consider the ethical obligations in these common scenarios:

A young man with asthma fled gang violence in Honduras. He is in ICE custody after presenting himself at the border to declare his desire to obtain asylum. 

An elderly woman is detained in ICE custody while waiting for her asylum case to be heard. Most cases are on hold during the pandemic, which increases the wait time. Releasing her could allow her to better protect herself from contracting the coronavirus and passing it to others. 

A child in ICE custody has sponsoring family members waiting to take care of her, but her release has been delayed by increasingly restrictive immigration policies. 

Is it ethical to detain these individuals in immigration facilities where proper sanitation, social distancing, and access to proper medical care is compromised, particularly when safer alternatives to detention are available?

In situations like these, our ethical, legal, and public health frameworks provide a way to better understand the risks of continued detention.

Many groups (including physicians, Human Rights First, Detention Watch Network, Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, Southern Poverty Law Center, and Unitarian Universalist Association) are demanding release on behalf of susceptible immigrants in government custody. As advocates at RAICES asked: “Can you imagine fleeing violence, seeking asylum in the United States, and then being locked up during a pandemic without the tools to keep yourself safe?” Keeping non-violent, at-risk people in custody is dangerous, unethical, and unnecessary when we have safer, less expensive, and more ethical alternatives to detention.

Prior to the current administration, people seeking asylum were released with tracking bracelets to sponsoring citizens, usually family members, where they awaited their court dates. This system cost taxpayers up to 80% less than the current system. Furthermore, under this system 98.5% of asylum seekers showed up for court dates to continue the process of obtaining asylum. These types of alternatives to detention already exist, they are effective, and they are humane. We already have the tools and  processes to release migrants who are not a risk to the public. Releasing migrants to sponsors will save lives, as these sponsors have a better capacity to social distance and maintain proper hygiene. 

Doctors and human rights groups have previously documented substandard health conditions within ICE detention centers, evidence that the current system cannot adequately address the added pressure of a pandemic. People guilty of nothing more than seeking refuge are at great risk of contracting COVID-19 while in U.S. custody, where social distancing and proper hygiene are difficult or impossible to maintain. 

We have an ethical obligation to provide a safe environment for displaced persons seeking asylum, which is not happening in detention centers. People have a right to wait out the asylum process free from preventable death. As of this writing, the U.S. is experiencing a drastically higher incidence of contraction and deaths than Mexico. Asylum-seekers who are not a public safety risk are facing unnecessary risks of contracting and dying from COVID-19 and should therefore be released. In the U.S., we have existing precedent for releasing detainees on humanitarian parole. While this type of release is happening on a small scale, we need a cohesive public health response to address release system-wide.

Migrants fleeing dangerous, violent situations do not deserve incarceration that puts them at unnecessary risk of catching a deadly virus. We can return to previous policies and processes that allow people seeking asylum to seek temporary refuge with sponsoring citizens and agencies, allowing them to take appropriate, life-saving safety measures against COVID-19. As members of MWEG, as peacemakers and scholars, as teachers and advocates, we believe people in vulnerable conditions are worthy of the best care we can provide, through systems that meet human needs. Our ethical responsibility toward those seeking refuge is to create and maintain systems that uphold the norms of human rights. Keeping asylum-seekers in custody, placing their health and safety at risk, is immoral and unethical.


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