There’s no sanitation, and there’s no social distancing. It’s an egregious violation of human rights.
This is how Dr. Ranit Mishori, Senior Medical Advisor at Physicians for Human Rights — and Georgetown University’s interim chief public health officer — described the conditions in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers amid the COVID-19 pandemic to The Hoya.
The U.S. government’s inadequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been magnified in the country’s most vulnerable populations, most of all those in ICE custody. The consistent neglect of detainees, evidenced by a lack of testing and protective equipment, has recklessly endangered asylum seekers. It is time to begin mass decarceration of these facilities before more lives are needlessly lost.
On Sept. 17, new reporting uncovered an outbreak that infected at least 53 detainees in a detention center in Adelanto, Calif. In early November, an ICE detention center in Aurora, Colo., reported a 60% increase in COVID-19 cases over just one month. These outbreaks are not isolated instances. Rather, they point to a widespread and largely unreported disregard for the rights of asylum seekers by ICE’s leadership and the federal government.
These locations are epicenters of outbreaks because the coronavirus spreads fastest in congregate settings. However, the lack of reform in this space is not so easily explained. While some facilities have lowered their populations, the centers are still breeding grounds for disease. The detainees are kept in close quarters and left vulnerable while workers and government officials come and go each day, often without testing.
The Adelanto outbreak is not the first time this issue has attracted national attention. Civil rights groups have alerted officials about health and sanitation concerns since early March. The American Civil Liberties Union and Physicians for Human Rights have lobbied ICE on medical and legal grounds to begin decarceration, a process that would release nearly all people in ICE custody until the agency can guarantee a safe return.
These attempts at large-scale reform have mostly failed. In April, the ACLU sued the ICE detention center in Otay Mesa, Calif., advocating for a dramatic reduction of the number of people in custody. As a result, a district court ordered a small number of releases for the medically vulnerable and stronger enforcement of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Yet, in early November, Otay Mesa reported a second mass outbreak among detainees.
This case proves there is no feasible way to keep asylum seekers in detention centers while still abiding by CDC guidelines. Therefore, decarceration is the only solution. Small changes to existing policy have been insufficient and performative.
The lack of change in our immigration system since March is an ugly reflection on the priorities of the U.S. government and healthcare system. A person’s immigration status should not leave them intentionally vulnerable to a pandemic.
Governmental change is only made when convenient for the privileged. Therefore, the impact of the work of citizen activists is incredibly important. Mishori has worked with lawyers to write briefs and take personal cases from asylum seekers to help them avoid ICE’s care. As cases increase, vulnerability increases and action must as well, including among Georgetown students.
We are in a unique position to affect change on this human rights issue. Georgetown students have the ability to advocate on Capitol Hill, partner with medical and law school advocacy groups and pressure a powerful university to stand up for those in detention centers. Students have opportunities to join protests and write briefs to help bring awareness for those detained through the Detention Watch Network.
Change starts with local advocates and protesters. As Mishori pointed out in her interview, “Activists are incredibly important. They are the ones that get the stories of those in detention out.”
As asylum seekers continue to die in our government’s custody, there is no more critical time than now for students at Georgetown to become those activists.
David McDaniels is a sophomore in the College.
This article was updated on December 5, 2020 to reflect Dr. Mishori’s position in Physicians for Human Rights.