Originally published by The New York Times
Inside an immigration court in southern Texas this week, a judge asked one of us to stand at the far end of the courtroom and not submit any documents on behalf of a client, perhaps as a health precaution. Inside a nearby federal court, dozens of migrants were being processed for violating federal immigration law. The coronavirus has paused most of our lives. But for migrants, life under a pandemic looks a lot like life before it: suffering because President Trump has an insatiable appetite for imprisoning migrants.
It’s time to shut down immigration prisons.
Across the country, the federal government locks up tens of thousands of people every day who are suspected of violating immigration law. The Border Patrol crams people into holding cells that resemble large kennels. Immigration and Customs Enforcement runs a network of hundreds of prisons — from a county jail north of Boston to an 1,100-bed facility tucked in a southern Texas wildlife refuge. While it’s good that ICE will stop some immigration enforcement, it should release the detainees in its custody. Another government agency, the Marshals Service, holds thousands more who are being prosecuted for violating criminal immigration law.
No matter which agency is in charge, there are only two reasons recognized under U.S. law to confine these people: flight risk or dangerousness. But in this moment, the risks to life and public health that come with imprisoning migrants far outweigh either reason.
Decades of research teaches us that crime goes down as the migrant population goes up. On top of that, pilot projects going back decades show that with the right support, migrants almost always do as they are asked. Inside immigration prisons, there are children too young even to tie their shoelaces. Families of asylum seekers hold on to the hope that in the United States, they might find refuge. There are longtime permanent residents with families, careers and homes here. Few have any history of violence. Most have powerful incentives to build lives just as ordinary as the rest of ours.
But let’s assume people released from immigration prisons don’t do as they should. The very real risk of illness or death faced by the people whom Border Patrol and the Marshals Service lock up are enormous compared with any downside of having people living, working and studying in the United States who don’t have the government’s permission to do so.
Even under normal circumstances, immigration prisons provide poor care. Last year, a teenager died of the flu inside a Border Patrol station in southern Texas. Government officials said an agent discovered him during a welfare check but the facility’s surveillance video shows that the boy’s limp body was found only after another boy confined alongside him woke to use the bathroom. In the fall of 2018, ICE botched a mumps outbreak in its prison network. A year later, there were over 900 mumps cases among ICE’s detainees or prison staff.
Clearly, none of us is living under ordinary circumstances. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us to avoid going out. We’re told not to gather in groups of more than 10. Schools are shuttered, restaurants are dark and some big-city jails are reducing their inmate counts.
The coronavirus’s quick transmission and deadly track record is likely to worsen inside immigration prisons. Basic preventive measures are next to impossible. There’s no social distancing because detainees live in cramped spaces. ICE doesn’t even require that the person who oversees medical care be a physician.
And we’re skeptical of how much training staff members are getting now. During a visit with a client this week, we asked a familiar prison guard whether a phone that visitors often use had been sanitized. He said yes. Then he pulled out an ordinary bath towel. No alcohol or sanitizer was in sight.
On Tuesday, the administration announced that it would seal off the border to people fleeing for their lives. There is no evidence that anyone requesting asylum has been confirmed as carrying the coronavirus. As of Wednesday morning, there were almost 3,400 more confirmed cases in the United States than in Mexico and Central America combined.
Instead of resorting to xenophobic, baseless, knee-jerk reactions, the administration should immediately begin releasing migrants from custody. ICE can use its discretion to release people who are not subject to mandatory custody. For the rest, the Justice Department could suspend its 2009 policy that custody requires detention.
Start with asylum seekers and families. Then the people with green cards. After that, release the migrants who have families or friends in the United States whom they would join. Then go from there. And do it fast, before people die.
This is not the time for new variations on old fears. It is time to take the extraordinary, lifesaving measure of closing immigration prisons.