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ICE is Leaving Immigrants to Die in Detention, and Retaliating When They Speak Out

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The spread of COVID-19 to immigrant detention facilities poses a mortal danger to everyone who is unjustly detained. For months now advocates, organizers and those detained have urged elected officials and governmental agencies to take affirmative steps to prevent needless deaths and suffering inside immigrant detention facilities.

Despite the spread of COVID-19 in these facilities, and the threat it poses to those detained, facility staff, and surrounding communities, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has refused to exercise its legal discretion to release those detained and save lives. By some estimates ICE has chosen to release less than 2% of those held in its inhumane jails. In California the situation is compounded as the majority of those detained are held in facilities operated by for-profit corporations with an egregious record of negligence and misconduct.

In an attempt to shed light on these horrific circumstances, immigrants in detention in California have launched coordinated hunger strikes, calling attention to their plight, the death of their fellow detainees, and support for the Black Lives Matter movement. These acts of heroic resistance have been coordinated with and supported by community members, advocates and organizers.

In response, ICE and their for-profit henchmen have undertaken a vicious campaign against activists in detention, retaliating against them with acts of violence and seeking to delegitmize their words and actions in the press. This includes using pepper spray against detainees who have peacefully protested or refused to sign a legal waiver in order to obtain masks, as well as threatening those who have taken part in hunger strikes.

In addition to threats of violence against detainees, ICE has sought to undermine resistance in detention facilities by making outlandish claims that detainees have been coerced into hunger strikes or that advocacy on the issue “exploits the plight of detainees”. In recent weeks ICE has blocked phone calls between local advocates and those in detention in order to sever communication and coordination with the outside world.

These actions are a blatant attempt to silence the free speech and expression of those detained, and a cruel attempt to sever the strong ties and solidarity that has developed between those in detention and their community of supporters. These cruel acts demonstrate just how desperate ICE is to stamp out the flames of organized resistance.

The simple truth is that ICE will do everything in its power to avoid admitting the most basic truth, that its detention system is unnecessary, unjust and inhumane. ICE’s unwillingness to release individuals is based solely on the fact that it does not want to acknowledge that it has the power to do so, and has always had this power, and does not need to detain immigrants in the manner and at the rate in which it does. ICE would rather facilitate mass deaths in its detention facilities than  threaten the multibillion-dollar detention infrastructure it has built.

We condemn ICE’s retaliation against detainees who have organized in resistance and who continue to lead a brave struggle to protect their lives and assert their humanity. We demand that ICE cease all forms of retaliation against those detained, restore phone access at the Otay Mesa detention facility, and free all those who are unjustly and needlessly detained.

We call on elected officials to intervene to protect the civil and human rights of those in ICE custody, and demand a full and independent investigation into the cruel and inhumane actions that continue to take place in these facilities.

Bianca Sierra Wolff is the Executive Director of the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice. Lisa Knox is the immigrant rights managing attorney at Centro Legal de la Raza.

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