Protests, Hunger Strikes Erupt Over Coronavirus in Immigration Detention
ICE officials use pepper spray on disruptive detainees as advocates say facilities aren’t safe during pandemic
Immigrants at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., organized a hunger strike, demanding more protections against the coronavirus.
PHOTO: DAVID GOLDMAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Updated March 27, 2020 1:25 pm ET
Immigrants in federal custody are staging hunger strikes and defying guards, according to advocates, while federal officials have cracked down with pepper spray in signs of growing tension over coronavirus in detention facilities.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement staff deployed pepper spray against detained immigrants three times this week, including at least one directly related to coronavirus concerns, according to spokespeople.
On Thursday, a 52-year-old ICE detainee at a facility in New Jersey tested positive for Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. It marked the second publicly confirmed case of a detained immigrant.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement, which supervises child immigrants who cross the border without a responsible adult, said Thursday three minors in its care at a New York facility tested positive for Covid-19.
Advocates have called for the widespread release of detained immigrants, who numbered more than 38,000 in ICE custody as of March 21. They say it’s impossible to prevent the rapid spread of the coronavirus in often-crowded ICE detention centers, which typically hold people who are in the U.S. illegally and awaiting deportation.
Confirmed casesas of Mar 27, 202044,70010New York44,635 cases
Confirmed deathsas of Mar 27, 202060010New York519 deaths
Source: Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering
“This is just as much an officer-safety issue as anything else, there is no way to keep the virus out,” said John Sandweg, former acting director of ICE during the Obama administration. Detention facilities, he said, “are the exact opposite of social distancing.”
An ICE website reported 22 cases of employees with Covid-19, three of whom work at detention facilities.
In protest of allegedly unhygienic conditions in various facilities, advocates this week said detainees told them they had organized hunger strikes at three ICE detention centers in New Jersey, one in Louisiana and one in Georgia.
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suits in Washington, Maryland, Pennsylvania, California and Massachusetts asking federal courts to release detainees they say are old or sick enough to suffer serious harm or death if they contract the virus. Separately, federal courts have ordered the release of 15 immigrants in three cases due to coronavirus-related health concerns.
ICE has said it is taking the health and safety of those in its custody seriously. In response to the first ACLU suit in Washington, the Trump administration argued that the plaintiffs had not taken into consideration the steps ICE has taken to keep detainees safe. In that case, a judge denied a request to immediately release nine detainees.
The pepper spray incident in Louisiana occurred when staff were conducting an informational briefing about Covid-19, ICE spokesman Bryan D. Cox said. Four detainees among 79 tried to force their way past staff, who then deployed the spray, according to Mr. Cox.
In a draft declaration, attorney Mariel Villarreal, who represents one of the four women, said her client told her that female detainees grew restless after their questions and concerns were ignored by officers.
Ms. Villarreal also wrote that her client had told her the staff had released tear gas into the room and locked a door behind them, leaving the women for about an hour.
“I’d simply point out big picture, not specific to any individual claim, there have been multiple false allegations made this week by persons outside ICE facilities based upon rumor and secondhand information,” Mr. Cox said. “Unverified, unsubstantiated claims should be treated with the appropriate skepticism they deserve.”
The other pepper spray incidents occurred at a separate detention facility in Louisiana and one in Texas at which detainees were confrontational or demanded to be released, according to ICE spokespeople. They didn’t comment on whether the disputes were related to coronavirus concerns.
Write to Alejandro Lazo at firstname.lastname@example.org
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