“Immigration Detention and the Spread of COVID-19; A Recipe for Disaster.”
Ella Rawls, Esq.
Chair, DSC Immigration Task Force

I would like to highlight something that is happening in our area.

I am the staff attorney at Justice For Our Neighbors, a non-profit organization providing free and low-cost immigration legal services to low income immigrants. We are a part of a United Methodist network of 19 legal services providers, called Justice For Our Neighbors. I am also a proud member of the Arizona Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). Our local AILA leadership has been working tirelessly to convince the leadership at the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR/Immigration) Courts to close down their detained courts, located at the detention facilities located in Florence and Eloy, Arizona. EOIR has already closed non-detained courts and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has already closed its field offices nation-wide to in-person interviews, naturalization ceremonies, and biometric appointments during this national emergency.

At this time the detained docket remains “business” as usual, except for anyone entering the facilities to speak with clients, to file court documents, and to present in person for hearings, is required to the wear the personal protective equipment (PPE) that our medical professionals are in dire need of. This decision continues to put immigrant detainees, Immigration Defense attorneys,  Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE/government) attorneys, and Immigration Judges at risk of contracting COVID-19. It is important to understand that a small town built up around where our immigration detention facilities are located, in Florence, Arizona. The risk is not only to those continuing to perform their duties in our immigration legal system, it also puts at risk those who work at the detention facilities, the people that they come in contact with, their families, as well as the health care providers that work in these facilities, many of whom are contracted United States Public Health Servicemen and women. Last year one detention facility in Arizona was shut down for a month or more because of a measles outbreak.

The Immigration detention facilities nationwide are unsanitary and during normal times, have proven to not be effective when disease has broken out. Imagine an outbreak of coronavirus with multiple people, not only because of detention, but also because they are trying to attend their immigration court hearings, where they are packed in like sardines!? Currently there has been at least one person who tested positive for COVID-19 in an ICE detention facility in New Jersey. Other immigrant detainees are holding hunger strikes in protest to lack of availability of soap and hand sanitizer, as well as their continued disregard for the health and safety of the immigrants.

Additionally, the immigrant children in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (under Health and Human Services) are considered “detained” for court purposes and THEY ALSO are required to show up to court, along with the staff at the facilities where they are housed.

Social Distancing could have a big impact in Arizona because even though we have a lot of people in our state, our housing developments, etc. tend to be more spread out than most major metropolitan areas in the country. However, if social distancing is going to work, we have to fix this large, gaping, whole that will make all of our social distancing efforts useless.

In other parts of the world jails have been emptied to protect EVERYONE from the spread of COVID-19. The people in immigration detention, by and large, are immigrants waiting for their chance to explain why they should be allowed to ENTER the US. In criminal law terms, they are almost all pre-trial detainees. Above all, while this health crisis continues world-wide, we should remember that we are all HUMAN and therefore deserve a fighting chance to live, and to live without fear.

A press release from AZ AILA leadership was issued to close down the detained courts. I believe this is a nationwide issue, and the Immigration Judges Association, and ICE Attorneys have backed the call for the closing of the immigration courts. This is the time for the Department of Justice to listen and do what is right, not just for the immigrants themselves, but everyone who is in contact with the ICE detention facilities.

After the immigration courts are closed, the immigrants must be set free. That is the only responsible way to allow EVERY HUMAN to social distance as our national leadership has asked of us. If they were to remain in detention the same risks of transmission would continue with the detention staff, health workers, and incoming immigrant detainees. We must do what is right for everyone and set the immigrants free.

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