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Coronavirus makes immigration detention even more unconscionable

| Monday, April 20, 2020

This probably isn’t the first “how coronavirus is affecting X issue” article (or even Observer Viewpoint article) you’ve read, and probably won’t be the last either. But as we shelter at home, waiting out the pandemic and maybe even feeling “locked up,” it’s worth a few minutes of your time to consider how the coronavirus is affecting the actually locked-up — in particular, detained immigrants, whose trials and tribulations over the past few years, more than anything else, have demonstrated how political outcomes can inflict needless cruelty and suffering on entire segments of the population.

Immigrants in detention during the coronavirus pandemic describe a chilling atmosphere of fear and anticipation, and a growing sense of helplessness — one immigrant held at the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center described her and her fellow detainees as feeling “like sitting ducks.” Immigration detention in the United States has always made a mockery of humane treatment and due process requirements, with the average stay in detention lasting 34 days in 2017 and the current backlog for the overtaxed and underequipped immigration court system exceeding 1.1 million cases (at press time). But as the coronavirus pandemic radically disrupts almost every aspect of what we’d describe as “normal operations” for our society, the response of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to the threat crystallizes the values and priorities that this administration has chosen to embrace, and makes clear the stakes of whether we allow it to continue.

Even before coronavirus, ICE had a dismal track record of handling disease outbreaks in detention centers, with a CDC report finding that the Trump administration’s decision to pack more and more people into immigration detention two years ago corresponded with a spike in mumps transmission. Their indifferent attitude towards public safety concerns has spilled over into the coronavirus response. ICE has released fewer than 700 detainees, often due to court orders mandating their parole — for those keeping score, that’s less than two percent of the over 35,000 immigrants currently in ICE custody. Moreover, while much of the national media has been focused on drive-in protests at state capitols (featuring signs with such compelling arguments as “I need a haircut”), immigrants in detention have had to resort to hunger strikes or other tactics to garner even local media attention and call for changes in procedures for handling the outbreak. And some ICE officers have even stooped as low as to leverage the coronavirus to encourage immigrants to give up their asylum cases and agree to deportation instead — a threat backed by the fact that in many cases, the detention center’s policies and the officers’ conduct is the most significant determinant of whether the entire detainee population will be put at risk of contracting the virus. Where ICE has taken a more proactive response, their “solution” to minimize transmission has taken the form of locking detainees in their cells for as long as 23 hours per day.

If one takes the agency’s and the administration’s press statements at face value — their dour pronouncements and assurances that decisions to release individuals are being made on a case-by-case basis and they are taking every safety precaution available — one can almost convince oneself that the administration is making the best out of a difficult situation. But these statements are lies. Or, if not a lie precisely, the sort of empty, theatric non-truth that doesn’t even attempt to pass itself off as accurate: such as naming a policy that has exposed over a thousand migrants to violent assault the “Migrant Protection Protocol.” It’s just not true that the administration is doing everything in its power to keep immigrants safe and healthy. ICE has full discretion to release everyone in their custody who is not otherwise subject to mandatory detention. Rather, it’s doing everything it can within the constraints that our society has decided to designate as unalterable rules for immigration enforcement — that undocumented immigrants are morally culpable, ought to be deported immediately and ought to be detained for as much of their time in the United States as possible.

I wrote last October about the growing trend in American discourse, especially on the right, to discount proportionality as a virtue of punishment, and instead to defend any level of punishment or mistreatment as justified by an immigrant’s initial decision to “break the law.” (Bonus points if the defender of this position has ever drunk underage, exceeded the speed limit, or hung a Barstool flag on his wall). It is clear that this animosity towards immigrants’ well-being, or, at best, passive indifference to their suffering has only grown stronger over the last six months. It’s hard to find anyone who would suggest that Americans have a right to receive stimulus checks during the coronavirus lockdown; most who support the policy, myself included, recognize it as a sound approach to support the economy by propping up consumer demand. But as soon as such support is extended to the immigrant population —including those who pay state and federal taxes — it is decried as a handout and the recipients as undeserving, regardless of the economic effects. To some, there is no policy — regardless of its economic, social or humanitarian benefits — that can be justified if one of its consequences is to improve the standard of well-being for undocumented immigrants.

This episode — the latest demonstration that the current administration considers immigrants disposable, and not worth saving — should force us to reconsider the “rules of the game,” or the unalterable principles, of immigration enforcement. It is clear that where discretion is afforded federal authorities, they cannot be trusted, or even expected, to use that discretion to operate with justice and compassion. And the complaint that inhumane treatment of immigrants predates the Trump administration simply illustrates the fact that a federal agency whose objective is to deport as many immigrants as possible, by any means necessary, will sacrifice justice and compassion along the way regardless of the president’s party, and must be restructured if we have any hope of recovering the latter two values.

Those willing to accept that immigrants in detention will die of coronavirus as a result of ICE’s refusal to change its priorities are giving you an answer to the question: “Do illegal immigrants deserve to die?” From Operation Gatekeeper to Remain in Mexico, over decades of inhumane immigration enforcement policies, that has always been the question at hand. The coronavirus pandemic makes it even more undeniably clear that defenders of the present immigration detention system are willing to condemn immigrants to death to preserve their status quo.

Patrick Aimone is a sophomore who fondly remembers living in Sorin College. He enjoys reading and writing about the Supreme Court and immigration justice. He is the incoming president of BridgeND, a multi-partisan political club committed to bridging the partisan divide through respectful and productive discourse. It meets on Mondays at 5 p.m. in the McNeill Room of LaFortune Student Center to learn about and discuss current political issues, and can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @bridge_ND.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About BridgeND

BridgeND is a bipartisan student political organization that brings together Democrats, Republicans, and all those in between to discuss public policy issues of national importance. They meet Tuesday nights (starting Sept.8) from 8-9pm in the McNeil room of LaFortune. They can be reached at [email protected] or by following them on Twitter @bridge_ND

Contact Bridge