Detainees Should Be Immediately Released from ICE Detention | Physicians for Human Rights

Detainees Should Be Immediately Released from ICE Detention

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According to the latest report from PHR, the health and human rights of detainees in ICE custody have been repeatedly violated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Detainees lack access to basic health amenities like soap and are unable to maintain basic social distance practices. We therefore call on Congress to immediately release detainees in ICE custody and vaccinate those still in detention. Please take action today: 

Your Message
Congress: Immediately Release Detainees from ICE Detention
Dear Senate Majority Leader Schumer, Senate Minority Leader McConnell, Speaker Pelosi, and House Minority Leader McCarthy

Over the past four years, the Trump administration has sought tirelessly to deny asylum rights to those fleeing persecution and has recklessly ignored the coronavirus public health emergency which endangers us all.

Now, as the 117th Congress begins its session amidst against staggering numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths, I write together with Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) to urge you to follow medical experts’ recommendations to address both the pandemic and human rights violations against immigrants.

Throughout the pandemic, asylum seekers in immigration detention have been needlessly jailed in extremely hazardous conditions without adequate health care or public health protections. With these dangers in mind, I call on Congress to work quickly with the new administration to facilitate the release of all people from immigration detention to allow them to safely shelter in place in non-custodial settings.

Physical and psychological abuse and inadequate medical care have long been documented in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities, where previous infectious disease outbreaks were poorly contained. Since early in 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the United States, it became clear that ICE’s continued negligence, coupled with the vast expansion of U.S. immigration detention, would likely lead to a public health disaster.

PHR staff and Harvard Medical School faculty and students have documented the horrifying experiences of people recently released from U.S. immigration detention in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Interviews with 50 immigrants formerly detained at 22 different ICE detention facilities across 12 states revealed appalling conditions:

• Nearly all immigrants interviewed were unable to maintain social distancing in the detention centers in which they were held. Eighty percent reported never being able to maintain a six-foot distance from others in their eating area. Some 96 percent reported that they were less than six feet from their nearest neighbor when sleeping.

• Only a quarter of ICE detainees could consistently practice hand hygiene recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

• Twenty-one out of 50 people interviewed (42 percent) experienced symptoms of COVID-19 while in detention, but only three were appropriately isolated from the other detainees and tested for the disease. The remaining 83 percent reported their symptoms to facility staff but did not get tested for COVID-19 and were not isolated.

• Most disturbing of all, of the 43 interviewees (86 percent) who reported and/or challenged poor conditions related to COVID-19 and demanded better protection and mitigation measures, more than half (24 people) faced retaliation for their actions. Among other punishments, respondents reported that they were verbally abused by detention facility staff, pepper sprayed, placed in solitary confinement, threatened with deportation, and had their food, communication, or commissary access limited.

As civil detainees, people in immigration detention are entitled to due process under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and cannot be held in punitive conditions. The government cannot put people in danger or act with deliberate indifference to a foreseeable or obvious threat and is required to provide for the reasonable health and safety of people in detention. U.S. federal courts have applied these standards and have ordered ICE to locate and release people at high risk of severe illness or death due to the coronavirus; give masks and sanitizer to detainees; make testing available; and take precautionary measures such as isolating people who test positive, halting intake, enforcing social distancing and mask-wearing, and providing sanitary and hygiene supplies. Yet ICE has thus far failed to implement this order.

The harsh and punitive conditions reported in the PHR/Harvard study show that ICE practices did not comply with CDC guidance or with ICE’s own Pandemic Response Requirements. This has created unacceptable health risks for detainees which violated their constitutional and human rights.

The situation could not be more dire. I call on Congress to urge the incoming Biden administration to immediately release all people from immigration detention to allow them to safely shelter in the community, absent a substantiated individual determination that the person represents a public security risk. Safely releasing people from immigration detention is in accordance with U.S. constitutional standards and represents the best way to prevent further outbreaks of COVID-19.


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