A year ago, around the time an ICE agent showed up at his mother’s home in Queens looking for him, Edwin had a union job working with sheet metal, and a wife and two kids. “My brother calls me, and he’s crying,” Edwin, who has a thick New York accent, recalls. “He’s like, ‘Damn, bro, this is for you.’ ” The officer left his business card at the house, and Edwin, who says he wanted to do the right thing for his family, made arrangements to turn himself in. Thirteen months later he was still in custody at the Hudson County Correctional Center in New Jersey, waiting for a chance to plead his deportation case, when the pandemic began.
“I remember watching Fox 5. It started off with two people in Jersey City, and in a matter of two weeks, it went to 158 people,” he says. “We knew this was getting serious. And when they canceled every contact visit, we knew it was getting out of hand.”
At the time, Edwin was sleeping in an open dorm he shared with 56 other ICE detainees. “There’s barely soap, there’s barely toilet tissue, there’s barely any type of cleaning materials. If there’s hand sanitizer, the hand sanitizer is for the correction officers,” Edwin told Rolling Stone in March. (Hudson County jail did not respond to requests for comment.)
Earlier that month, he says, a fellow ICE detainee abruptly disappeared from his dorm. A few days later he was back, saying he’d been tested for the coronavirus and briefly isolated. Then the man was gone again, released without explanation. “We’re like, ‘Hold on, the coronavirus is in here?’ ” Edwin recalls. “ ‘Why isn’t everybody getting tested? We’ve been interacting with this person.’ ”
The jail went into lockdown: Detainees were transferred from their open dorm to two-person cells, allowed out one at a time for 30 minutes a day. Soon after, the detainees went on a three-day hunger strike, demanding soap and cleaning supplies.
According to a class-action lawsuit against ICE, similar scenes were playing out around the country. At the Joe Corley Detention Facility in Conroe, Texas, cafeteria workers staged a three-day strike over the lack of precautions taken for COVID-19. Detainees who went on a hunger strike in Pine Prairie, Louisiana, were punished with solitary confinement, where three of them reported to their lawyers that they were forced to drink from the toilet.
They were right to be concerned. A few weeks after the hunger strike at Hudson County began, 41 staffers and 22 inmates and detainees at the jail tested positive for COVID-19. Four employees — two nurses, a corrections officer, and the jail’s commissary director — have died of complications from the virus.
Under the Trump administration, ICE has taken a punitive approach to immigration enforcement, rounding up as many undocumented immigrants as it can and making it dramatically harder for them to be released from detention. Public-health experts say those detention centers have now become “tinderboxes” for the virus. But the administration has resisted releasing the vast majority of detainees, despite the fact that more than half of them have not been convicted of a crime and have no pending criminal charges — they’re just waiting for civil immigration hearings.
In February, the agency began ramping up “Operation Palladium,” in which Border Patrol Tactical Units were instructed to “flood the streets” of American sanctuary cities, surveilling and arresting people who, in many cases, had done nothing more than overstay their visas or let their green cards expire. Advocates say referrals for immigration lawyers “skyrocketed” during this period — the exact moment that the coronavirus was transforming detention centers into especially dangerous places to be. Those raids continued for a full week after Trump declared the coronavirus a national emergency.
On March 18th, ICE announced it would halt “most” enforcement efforts during the outbreak and focus on arresting only dangerous criminals. That decision, from acting ICE director Matt Albence, was quickly walked back by his boss, Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary of Homeland Security, who said the announcement that ICE would prioritize criminals “does not mean that no other removable aliens will in fact be removed.” Advocates in New York say they saw numbers of newly detained migrants drop after the announcement, but as recently as March 31st — the day California’s shelter-in-place order went into effect — ICE agents were still carrying out raids in Los Angeles.
At the start of the pandemic there were some 36,000 ICE detainees. As of early May, 788 had tested positive for the coronavirus, but only 1,593 total had been tested — less than five percent of the detainee population. ICE contends that only 42 employees at detention centers have tested positive for the virus, but that does not include workers who are employed by the public jails or private prisons — like the four who died at Hudson County — which make up the vast majority of facilities where ICE detainees are held.
“They are using those low numbers to make it seem like there is not a problem when there is obviously a problem,” says Andrea Saenz, attorney-in-charge of the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project at Brooklyn Defender Services. “We’ve had so many clients call us either reporting symptoms or reporting their cellmate has symptoms, just scared.”
In late March, Attorney General William Barr ordered the federal prison system to release at-risk, nonviolent inmates to home confinement, but ICE has dragged its feet in issuing a similar blanket policy to release vulnerable detainees. Albence told Congress on April 17th that releasing nonviolent detainees to protect them from the coronavirus would signal to prospective migrants that the Trump administration is “not enforcing our immigration laws” and could create a “rush at the borders.” ICE says it has evaluated its detained population based upon the CDC’s guidance and released more than 900 people since the outbreak began. But immigration attorneys say their clients aren’t being screened and argue that there shouldn’t be this many people locked up in the first place.
Under previous administrations, advocates contend, ICE often allowed vulnerable noncitizens — pregnant women, the elderly, and those suffering from serious illnesses — to await hearings at home rather than in detention. In 2013, ICE created an algorithm to determine who should be released from custody after arrest. According to data uncovered by the New York Civil Liberties Union through a Freedom of Information Act request, the algorithm was changed five months after Trump’s inauguration, and the number of immigrants deemed low-risk enough to be released plunged from 47 percent to just three percent.
“It wasn’t this way not that long ago,” says Laura Rivera, director of the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It’s almost become normal to think about immigrants being confined against their will, waiting for their day in court, but as Americans we should really question the sense behind that.”
Keeping so many people locked up during the pandemic, experts say, is practically inviting public-health crises. Scott Allen and Josiah Rich, two doctors with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, warned the office in letters on February 25th and March 13th that the nationwide network of ICE facilities through which detainees are regularly transferred “represents a frighteningly efficient mechanism for rapid spread of the virus to otherwise remote areas of the country where many detention centers are housed.”
The doctors urged DHS to take proactive measures — screening, testing, and quarantining detainees who are sick. An ICE representative says, “Detainees are being monitored and tested for COVID-19 in line with CDC guidance and in conjunction with the recommendations of state and local health partners.” But an ongoing class-action lawsuit charging ICE with failing to provide appropriate medical and mental-health care has collected statements from detainees that claim the bare-minimum safety standards are not being observed.
The statements describe the same scenarios over and over: transfers that are continuing without precautions; guards who are not wearing masks or gloves; little to no supplies provided to the detainees, who are expected to clean their own spaces; and little in the way of virus education — a CDC flyer, maybe, often only in English.
Mikhail Solomonov, in custody at a facility in Aurora, Colorado, wrote that there was no hand sanitizer or masks. At the Adelanto ICE Processing Center in San Bernardino County, California, Faour Abdallah Fraihat said new detainees arrive regularly and procedures at the facility haven’t changed since the virus began. In Louisiana, a detainee with coronavirus symptoms was given ibuprofen, syrup, and salt instead of a test for COVID-19.
“The evidence suggests systemwide inaction that goes beyond a mere ‘difference of medical opinion or negligence,’ ” U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal wrote in an opinion on the class-action lawsuit on April 20th, in which he ordered ICE to review its custody of detainees with health conditions that put them at high risk for COVID-19. Another judge declared ICE facilities in New Jersey, including Hudson County, had shown “deliberate indifference to [detainees’] serious medical needs” and ignored evidence that the coronavirus “will likely cause imminent, life-threatening illness.”
Saenz says it is still a fight to get her clients released — even those who have tested positive for the coronavirus. “My take is that the number-one reason for someone to get released is that we file litigation,” she says. “They are really hanging on by their fingernails and saying, ‘No, we don’t have to release people.’ ”
Edwin was one of the lucky ones. His lawyers secured his release at the end of March. He spent days with a burning fever when he got out, he says. His case is still pending, and he still worries an ICE agent could show up at his door at any moment and drag him back to Hudson County. “I’m happy that I’m home with my daughters and my wife,” he says. “[But] I’m waking up in the middle of the night, with my heart racing. I’m still kind of scared.”