Repression and Violence: What Immigrants in Detention Experience During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Photo Credit Alisa Reznick / Arizona Public Media

While the country is seeing a rapid increase in its cases of COVID-19, the so-called “breeding grounds” have yet to see any improvement since the pandemic broke out in mid-March.

According to ICE figures, the number of immigrants with coronavirus in custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has also risen dangerously. More than 2,700 detainees nationwide have tested positive.

Between the inability to practice social distancing and the precariousness of supplies for the sanitation of facilities, the situation for immigrant detainees is hopeless, and officials’ concerns are increasingly pressing.

American Civil Liberties Union Senior Staff Attorney Eunice Cho said they were right to worry, NPR reported.

“These are warnings that have been inevitable from the very start and exactly the reason why ICE should have, and should continue to, release people, especially those who are medically vulnerable to COVID-19, to prevent a humanitarian disaster,” she said.

However, ICE claims to follow the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and refuses to release detainees unless it comes from a court order.

That is why the detainees themselves have taken matters into their own hands in some facilities.

At the detention center run by CoreCivic in New Mexico, immigrants went on a hunger strike for days until guards entered their prison dormitory in riot gear complete with gas masks, shields, and pepper spray cans, according to The Guardian.

The officers rounded up the two-dozen inmates and “suddenly, they started gassing us,” said Yandy Bacallao, a 34-year-old asylum seeker from Cuba.

“You could hear everyone screaming for help,” he added.

The May 14 “attack”, in the words of Bacallao and other migrants, took place at Torrance county detention facility, a sprawling complex located about an hour southeast of Albuquerque. Set off from the desert scrub by a tall chain-link fence draped in rolls of razor wire, it is run by CoreCivic, a private prison company, and mostly houses migrants under the custody of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

A CoreCivic spokesman, Ryan Gustin, confirmed the incident and said, in a written statement, that guards “responded to a protest” and used pepper spray “on a group of detainees who became disruptive by refusing to comply with verbal directives provided by staff.”

In another detention center in Virginia, the situation was similar.

Detainees held a peaceful protest on Monday, June 22, alarmed by the rapid spread of the coronavirus at the Farmville detention center. Some refused to eat and others declined to rise for the late-afternoon attendance count within their crowded dormitory, according to what detainees told The Daily Beast.

Then the detention-center authorities ordered the 80 or so migrants back to their bunks. Ten or more guards in body armor rushed in. “The first thing they did was fire a shot,” said one of the detainees. 

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) guard fired his weapon above the migrants’ heads, and didn’t hit anyone. “It was a distraction bullet, the guy with the gun said. But a distraction from what?” the detainee asked. ICE confirmed the discharge of a weapon, but disputed the guard fired any projectile.

Adina Appelbaum, who runs the immigration impact lab at the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights (CAIR) Coalition, was unaware of any previous instance, at least in the greater DC area, of ICE guards firing a weapon within a detention facility.

“In the past 10 years of CAIR Coalition defending the rights of immigrants who are detained, our organization has not heard of guns being pulled on people who are detained in this region,” Appelbaum said.

“This was a gross misuse of force that should not be used by enforcement officers in response to peaceful protests anywhere, including within detention facilities,” she added.