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Release undocumented immigrants who pose no danger before deadly coronavirus sweeps through detention centers

When you’re in a crowded place and struggle to get your hands on soap, you’re in big trouble against a deadly virus. 

immigration, asylum, detention, ICE, coronavirus, undocumented-immigrants
A 2018 photo shows a sign that reads “Families Belong Together” on a fence outside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington. Advocacy groups want immigrants and asylum seekers released from detention amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Ted S. Warren/AP

There are tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers in detention who don’t belong in jails or jail-like facilities that are spread across our country.

They are not criminals.

More than ever, with the coronavirus sweeping across the country, there is an urgent need for their release.

Fifty-four percent of immigrants in detention who had criminal convictions were categorized last year as Level 3 offenders, according to Syracuse University’s TRAC research center. Their “crimes” were low level offenses, such as illegal entry to the U.S. or traffic-related violations.

Those people should be set free. Their so-called crimes didn’t warrant detainment and deportation in the first place.

Another 31,000 people were being detained who had no criminal convictions at all, TRAC research showed, and some of them were asylum seekers. It’s no crime to seek refuge in the United States. Yet “detention is the default to every arriving asylum seeker,” Tania Linares Garcia, a senior litigation lawyer with the National Immigrant Justice Center based in Chicago, told me.

Those who have no convictions must also be released. Many are held in detention centers where filthy, overcrowded conditions have been well documented over the years.

Since October, 10 immigrants have died while in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, and seven children have died while in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody or died shortly after their release.

That was before the coronavirus outbreak.

We know that packing people in tight spaces, whether at a funeral or a jail, creates a petri dish effect for coronavirus to spread.

Outbreaks of infectious diseases are common at ICE and CBP facilities. Typically, the flu is prevalent. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an outbreak of mumps that infected 898 migrants and 33 detention facility staff members.

Detention facilities pose a greater danger than ever to the health of detainees and employees. By releasing people who don’t pose a threat to public safety, surrounding communities could be spared from a greater spread of the coronavirus.

As of Thursday morning, there were six confirmed cases of the coronavirus among detainees in custody and five cases among ICE employees at detention facilities, ICE reported on its website.

At ICE jails and family detention facilities, panic has set in because of the virus.

“Everyone is really desperate, and I think this is all about to collapse,” a father at the Karnes Detention Center in Texas said in a recording leaked to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.

Sick children were vomiting and had diarrhea, said the father, who added: “People are totally desperate because of that.”

Another father said that except for shampoo in the shower area, he wasn’t given any soap.

Linares Garcia told me that only a handful of the National Immigrant Justice Center’s clients recently have been released on humanitarian parole amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Overall, “there is no sign ICE is relenting,” Linares Garcia said. Detainees know they are sitting ducks for the virus. “The anxiety, the anguish is so strong,” she added.

ICE claims it is taking measures to prevent the spread of the virus, including distributing soap, but Linares Garcia said detainees that her organization is helping aren’t given soap unless they buy it from a detention facility’s commissary. Even then, detainees sometimes must make a choice between spending their money on soap or using it to place phone calls to their lawyers.

When you’re in a crowded place and must struggle to get your hands on a bar of soap, you’re in big trouble against a deadly virus.

When you don’t belong in jail to begin with, it’s unconscionable.

Marlen Garcia is a member of the Sun-Times Editorial Board.