Courtesy of Elizabeth Weinbloom

For thousands of individuals detained in ICE custody, social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic is impossible.

Last Thursday, New Haven-based immigration rights group Unidad Latina en Acción partnered with Never Again Action Boston, a Jewish political action organization, to pressure politicians into immediately releasing detainees at Bristol County Correctional Center in Massachusetts. The immigration justice groups held a COVID-19 safe “honkathon” involving over 100 protestors who stayed inside their vehicles, slamming car horns while circling the detention center. The protest was largely a show of support following three open letters signed by the majority of detainees of the center. These letters detailed concerns that correctional officers were allegedly infected with the virus — an allegation the center denied — and demanded more robust sanitation measures as well as the release of detainees with serious pre-existing health conditions.

“Medical [personnel] in their unofficial vest stated that the infection of the whole ICE facility population is inevitable and will occur within the next 30 days,” read the first letter from Bristol’s Unit B, dated March 18. “Such [a] statement [spread] faster than the virus itself among detainees that are now extremely agitated and panicking.”

Most detained immigrants from Connecticut are held in Bristol’s center, removed from family homes for indefinite detention in the large warehouse. The detainees in Bristol Unit B are housed in bunks three feet away from one another — in contrast to the six feet of space recommended for social distancing. According to state law, Unit B has a mandatory capacity of 25 but currently contains 59 individuals.

The letters from the detainees also claim that sanitation efforts are poor: hand sanitizer is not provided, soap is diluted, correctional officers neglect to wear masks, and scanning devices, communal phones and toilets are not disinfected.

Detainees became particularly alarmed when two correctional officers appeared to display symptoms of COVID-19 and were shortly replaced without explanation. The letter claims that a different correctional officer addressed concerns over the virus by saying, “You don’t get it, this [coronavirus] is nothing more than a flu.”

“This is a system that punitively withholds adequate healthcare,” Alicia Camacho Schmidt, chair of Ethnicity, Race, and Migration and member of the Connecticut Bail Fund, said.

Schmidt explained that along with isolating them from their families, transporting migrants to other facilities poses public health risks. Doing so may prevent people from seeing healthcare providers that were treating them, and the cramped conditions on buses, trains and planes can make it impossible to prevent the spread of contagions, she said.

“There’s definitely a lot of families here in Connecticut that are struggling because they have a loved one incarcerated in an immigration detention center over 100 miles away,” New Haven resident and activist Vanesa Suarez told the News. “And they’re all terrified for their life, and of dying in there because of the virus.”

Within the Bristol center, the letter appealed for the immediate release of 28 inmates with severe medical conditions, such as asthma, tuberculosis and emphysema. COVID-19 poses a higher threat to elderly individuals and individuals who are immunocompromised.

The letter also asked for the release of low risk detainees — those who have no aggravated felonies — and that individuals who have consented to deportation be transported out of the U.S. within five days.

“There are currently no positive or suspected cases of coronavirus among any staff, inmate, or detainee,” Jonathan Darling, spokesperson for the Bristol County Sheriff’s office, told the News in an email. “The protest was peaceful, but also a complete waste of time. We have no legal authority to release any ICE detainee. All it did was tie up public safety resources … and cause traffic delays for everyday folks.”

Elizabeth Weinbloom, spokesperson for Never Again Action, told the News that the honkathon followed other creative organizing measures that did not include large gatherings of people in close proximity. Last Sunday, the group symbolically projected an image of Anne Frank onto the JFK Federal Building in Boston with the caption, “Anne Frank died of an infectious disease in a crowded detention center.”

The action was targeted at lobbying Massachusetts governor Charles Baker to use his emergency powers to release ICE detainees. Weinbloom told the News that Baker could use the same executive powers he has already deployed in shutting down schools, parks and businesses to free the detainees.

“Detention centers are going to become deadly concentration camps if the virus gets in and is allowed to spread unchecked,” Weinbloom said. “If we pressure the public, and we pressure the people who are working there, hopefully that pressure is going to go all the way up to the governor and start getting some folks released.”

Activists across the country have been pushing governors and federal judges in similar efforts –– honkathons have been organized in California, New Jersey and New York. Last week, Brooklyn Defender Services successfully argued for the release of 10 ICE detainees with chronic health conditions from a New Jersey detention center. And earlier in March, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit against ICE to push them into releasing detainees with pre-existing health conditions.

This month, ICE announced in a public statement that during the COVID-19 pandemic, it would focus its detention efforts only on individuals deemed a threat to public safety based on criminal grounds. ICE also said that fear of detention should not deter sick persons from pursuing medical attention.

“During the COVID-19 crisis, ICE will not carry out enforcement operations at or near healthcare facilities … except in the most extraordinary of circumstances,” the statement read. “Individuals should not avoid seeking medical care because they fear civil immigration enforcement.”

Last Tuesday, as part of its coronavirus emergency funding request, the White House asked Congress to give $249 million to ICE. Specifically, the White House said the money would go towards personal protective equipment for ICE staff, converting some ICE facilities into designated quarantine centers and increasing the capacity of its “Alternatives to Detention” program — a scheme that allows the release of immigrants from detention centers while authorities continue to track them through ankle-monitors or mandated check-ins. The funding is also intended for increasing charter aircrafts for ICE air in order to accelerate deportation flights and free up space in detention facilities.

But these provisions may come too late, as detention facilities are already reporting cases of COVID-19. On March 19, a medical staff member at the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey tested positive for the infection. Five days later, a different facility in New Jersey reported a detainee had contracted the virus, the first COVID-19 case among immigrants in ICE custody.

“There is no way in a situation like this to do anything but minimize risks,” Schmidt said. “But ‘minimize risks’ is a term in itself that says you are accepting harm that is otherwise preventable.”

According to ICE’s enforcement and removal operations reports, almost 400,000 individuals were booked into ICE custody in 2018.

Meera Shoaib | meera.shoaib@yale.edu

Rose Horowitch | rose.horowitch@yale.edu