The Hotspots in Hiding: COVID-19 and Immigrant Detention

The combination of immigrant detention and COVID-19 is a travesty happening in real time, expanding rapidly, and resembling the situation in prisons and jails nationwide as well as in African American and Latina/o/x communities. The first detainee death attributed to the coronavirus occurred Wednesday, May 6 at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego and there are 965 positive cases amid migrant detainees nationwide as of May 15.

Migrant detention is an area of policy where extreme power rests in the executive branch and where the rights of migrants are at their nadir. Immigration has been gravely impacted by the global pandemic—first by the virus itself and second by the callousness and wastefulness of the current administration.

The catastrophic, deadly, and largely predictable racial inequities in survival as a result of the pandemic have only recently become part of the national discussion. African American and Latina/o/x people are adversely affected at far higher rates than others in the United States. That is objectively clear. For some major cities, overrepresentation of these communities is off the charts—all but three of the entire death toll of St. Louis and 70% of Chicago fatalities in early April were black. In New York City, the national epicenter of the virus, blacks and Latinas/os/xes are twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than whites. And in California, these disparities affect young blacks and Latinas/os/xes as well. Social and economic inequalities of course play a role, such as access to healthcare, housing, transportation as well as labor rates among “essential” workers, but so do politics and criminal justice. This is not just an urban phenomenon but a rural one as well.

We must now imagine other communities where black Americans and Latinas/os/xes predominate. Look no further than U.S. prisons and jails. Prisons are petri dishes, where racialized and gendered populations are warehoused, unable to engage in social distancing. The effects of these spatial arrangements, much like working class neighborhoods, are felt by the incarcerated residents, prison staff, and their family members. Seven of the top ten hotpots (and 15 of the top 20) for coronavirus—right now (June 8)—are at prisons and jails, reports the New York Times.

In the shadow of this prison system, however, is another prison system, wholly racialized, for practically one community—the Latina/o/x community. This is the immigrant detention regime, a nationwide web of 200+ facilities, where persons of Latin American origin comprise well over 90% of persons apprehended, detained, and deported. Detention centers are not just incubators for COVID-19, but staging grounds for the spread of the virus.

The numbers change rapidly, caused largely by feeble mitigation efforts. By mid-May, it was estimated that there were almost 1,000 cases amid a population of 28,000 in the migrant detention system and two guards at a Louisiana facility with 45 detainee cases died of the virus. In addition, 40 staff at Stewart Detention Center in Georgia were reportedly infected and there were 132 COVID-positive detainees at a single facility, the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, where the first migrant death occurred, making its zip code the highest in the county. This is just the tip of the iceberg, because ICE had only tested 1,800 detainees by late May (and only 700 a week prior), which yielded a 54% infection rate.

Who’s not on this list? Any migrant in Border Patrol custody, whose crowded carceral sites have already proven deadly to children and adults, in particular, as the result of infectious diseases. Unaccompanied minors pass through the same harmful facilities and are then sent to a variety of shelters nationwide. At the Heartland Human Care Services shelter in southside Chicago, 42 youths have tested positive for the virus (as of April 21). Further, ICE has continued its practice of picking up sheltered youth as they become legal adults and then transferring them into adult detention, instead of a group home or release—choosing the crowded more dangerous option over the safer more spacious one. The practice—used over 90% of the time in Houston and Miami, but only 2.6% in San Antonio—is arbitrary and may violate the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which governs the treatment of unaccompanied minors.

Chronic and acute physical and mental issues already run unabated in detention centers and are masked by a bureaucratic system that papers over neglect and death in custody. One example of this administrative obfuscation is the phrasing for death, “permanent injury beyond medical intervention,” burying tragedy under bureaucratic legalese. As the COVID-19 continues to spread across the United States, confined spaces such as detention centers need to be addressed as part of a national strategy to flatten the curve of the pandemic.

The Trump administration, however, is stubbornly operating in a business as usual manner—conducting raids, maintaining court proceedings, detaining new migrants, and dispersing them globally through detention’s twin process of deportation. Reports already point to deportations increasing the spread of the virus across parts of Central America. Judges throughout the country have ordered vulnerable detainees released in local jurisdictions due to the inevitability of the virus’s spread. But so far, ICE has released only 700 of the 28,000 persons it holds, choosing deportation as the means to contract the population. More than half of these people are detained only because the government chooses to incarcerate them. They are administrative detainees of all stripes, from asylum seekers to undocumented border crossers (including children), to migrants in deportation proceedings for having committed crimes in the U.S. and thus mandatorily detained. This last group represents less than half of the detainee population.

Currently, ICE facilities, public and private, do not have the staffing capacity or facilities to screen, quarantine, or monitor persons with infections. Basic mitigation efforts, such as washing hands per the CDC, are not possible in a largely privatized system where detainees must purchase their own soap to supplement rationed supplies at the for-profit commissary. ICE’s infamously substandard medical facilities also require transfer of the infected migrants and staff to local communities. Detention facilities incarcerate a highly transient population and are dependent on multiple vendors and contractors. Like others, they suffer from the lack or non-vigilant use of personal protective equipment (PPE), broken supply chains, and short-staffing due to illness or fear.

Detainees, unless they have been determined to be a danger to society or themselves, must be released immediately as we bear witness to the predictable spread of COVID-19 throughout the detention regime. Release, however, cannot be a means for the Trump administration to continue its racialized immigration agenda, as it has done in every area of immigration policy—ending asylum, closing the border, and ordering a freeze on green card applications.

Release cannot mean deportation, under even more swift and adverse legal conditions that are already the status quo. Similarly, if noncitizens are released from prisons, they should not be ushered into the deportation regime. And finally, social distancing cannot mean increased use of private prisons in order to spread out the population and the virus.

Detention is not a pandemic-proof industry, but a pandemic-ready one. Upwards to three-fourths of detention beds are managed by for-profit jailers. Release, for safety and humanitarian reasons, would cut into their bottom lines and expose the needlessness of the vast majority of the detention regime. The government’s enforcement strategy that privileges punishment and profitability locates detainees in a state of suspended danger, exposing them to almost certain infection. We know this already, so let’s fix it and release all detainees that are not a danger to themselves or society and protect those that remain behind bars. That is, unless what we are bearing witness to, in real time, is the deliberate and deadly intended consequence of the Trump administration.

About the Authors:

David Hernández is an Associate Professor of Latina/o Studies at Mount Holyoke College.

Beatriz Marquez Aldana is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Texas State University.

Isabel Anadon is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

John Eason is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Note: This article was previously published on Medium and is reproduced with permission.

“Detention Center Fencing” by D-Stanley is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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