In 2018, five migrants in two Texas immigrant detention centers contracted the mumps. That handful of cases resulted in the quarantine of more than 4,200 people in 39 detention centers nationwide. Now, there are people suffering with COVID-19—a virus that has no vaccine, no treatment, and no herd immunity—in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers across the country. It’s just a matter of time until we see the first death.

Immigrant detention was never necessary, but it has always been dangerous. Detention centers are rife with inhumane, and sometimes deadly, conditions ranging from rotten food to fatally inadequate medical care. The U.S. Government systematically deprives the liberty of hundreds of thousands of immigrants, refugees, and people seeking asylum.

As COVID-19 spreads rapidly through ICE facilities, it has become increasingly clear that keeping people detained not only risks the lives of people in custody, but also those in surrounding communities.

The communal living and close confinement of immigrant detention centers, like prisons and jails, create ideal conditions for the spread of disease. That’s why other institutions such as colleges have shut down dorms across the country. But even as public health experts call for the release of people detained, the government has held steadfast in its determination to keep immigrants locked away, which it justifies with a white supremacist myth of self-preservation and public safety. We’ve always known that the government will risk lives in the name of white supremacy, but the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us just how far this administration is willing to go to preserve their anti-immigrant agenda. 

ICE detention is not quarantine. Facilities are a revolving door of agents, officers, and food contractors who come in and out each day and who will bring the virus home to their communities if exposed. An outbreak would cause a spike in cases that could overload our healthcare system and require already sparse testing equipment, ventilators, and physician capacity. As long as ICE facilities are operating and people remain detained, there is no avoiding the spread of COVID-19.

And ICE knows this to be true. That is why—after advocates threatened the agency in court—it released a handful of people from detention who are at the highest risk for serious cases of the novel coronavirus. But everyone is at risk, not just the elderly or those with pre-existing conditions. Even a former acting director of ICE has called for the release of people in detention. No one wins when immigrants and people seeking asylum are locked away and the power of immigrant communities is suppressed. In fact, the only thing that stands to benefit from continued detention is America’s legacy of white supremacy. 

ICE’s foundation is rooted in racism and targets Black and brown immigrant communities. The agency was created as part of a racist and Islamophobic response to the September 11, 2001 attacks. Keeping tens of thousands of people behind bars in immigration detention centers only serves to spread xenophobia and galvanize white supremacists.

The deaths to come from COVID-19 will not be the only preventable deaths in ICE facilities. Over 200 adults have died in ICE custody since the agency was created in 2003. That isn’t counting the many children who have died in facilities operated by Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Communities across the country have witnessed the deterioration of the mental and physical health of people once they enter an ICE facility.
 
These are not simply features of the openly xenophobic Trump administration, but emblematic of a bipartisan machine that saw more than 3 million deportations under President Obama. ICE and CBP did not even exist until the early 2000s. As we face a global pandemic, this system is putting the lives of everyone in custody—and those outside as well—at even greater risk. An outbreak anywhere affects public health everywhere.

If we are truly going to flatten the curve, we must act now to release every person in detention. This is not the time to dig our heels into the ground and stick with a deadly status quo. This is the time to create bold policy that meets the moment we’re in. Anything less is trading away lives in the name of white supremacy. 


Silky Shah is the Executive Director of Detention Watch Network, a national coalition building power through collective advocacy, grassroots organizing, and strategic communications to abolish immigration detention in the United States.