Led by Amnesty International USA, 120 rights groups on Friday urged the Trump administration to release all families being held in immigrant detention centers as it complies with a recent court order to release children from these facilities due to concerns about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“We strongly object to any plan to place a choice before parents that is no choice at all: indefinite detention with their children in deadly conditions during a global pandemic or possibly permanent separation from them,” the groups write in a joint letter (pdf). “Parents must be released with their children to preserve family unity, as family separation is not in the best interests of the child.”
California-based U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee wrote in her June 26 ruling that “the family residential centers are on fire and there is no more time for half measures.” She ordered Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to release migrant children who have been detained longer than 20 days either with their parents or other guardians with parental consent by Friday, though the deadline has since been extended to July 27.
Echoing reactions to Gee’s order last month, the rights group sent a letter to Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and Acting ICE Director Matthew Albence, calling on them to free families from detention together rather than forcing parents to decide between separation and putting their children at risk for Covid-19.
JUST IN: 120 NGOs demand that #ICE stop separating families or keeping them locked up indefinitely. ICE’s reckless and cruel choices must end.
We demand ICE release all families together immediately. https://t.co/nExqo6PMQL
— Amnesty International USA (@amnestyusa) July 17, 2020
The letter explains that “ICE has historically exercised its legal authority and discretion to release parents with their children on parole and/or into alternative-to-detention (ATD) programs,” and since the pandemic started, lawmakers, advocates, attorneys, doctors, and members of the public have pushed the agency to do so.
As the Covid-19 has ravaged communities across the United States—by Friday afternoon there were more than 3.6 million confirmed cases and over 138,800 deaths in the country—ICE along with those in charge of jails and prisons nationwide have faced mounting calls to release detainees who are at high risk of dying from the infectious disease or pose no public safety threat.
“Covid-19 is running rampant in these facilities,” the letter says of ICE detention centers, citing reports that 34 detainees at Karnes County Residential Center in Texas and 21 staffers at the South Texas Family Residential Center have tested positive for the virus. “Despite this, ICE continues to fail to take steps to prevent contagion in these family detention facilities. Sick employees are permitted to come to work, and there are arbitrary contact-tracing and quarantine practices.”
“We are deeply alarmed that ICE is now on the verge of forcing parents into an impossible and cruel ‘choice,’ as it did in May 2020, when ICE asked detained parents whether they wished to remain detained with their children in unsafe conditions or separate from their children so the children could be released from detention,” the letter continues. “These families are living with unthinkable fear and anxiety—not knowing if they will be released, if they will contract Covid-19, or if ICE will seek to try to separate them again, as it attempted in mid-May.”
The letter asserts that “family separation produced by this coercive ‘choice’ violates multiple human rights, including the right to family unity, the right to liberty, and the requirement to prioritize the best interests of the child.” Keeping families together, the letter adds, “is also the right and compassionate thing to do.”
As the letter explains:
Long before the onset of Covid-19, family detention and family separation were roundly criticized by medical and mental health experts for the trauma they inflict on children and their parents. Detention centers are often retraumatizing, and children in detention “may experience developmental delay and poor psychological adjustment” even after they are released; even brief periods of detention can lead to psychological trauma and long-term health risks. Family separation is a form of psychological violence experts have likened to “soul murder,” which inflicts lasting and permanent damage upon children and their parents. The powerful evidence documenting the harm of these practices only underscores the urgency of ending both immediately.
The groups also acknowledge the U.S. government’s troubling track record on immigration under President Donald Trump. The administration started separating migrant children from parents who crossed the border illegally in 2017 before officially rolling out its “zero tolerance” policy the following year. Critics worldwide denounced the family separation policy as not only “heartless and cruel” but also a violation of international law.
The Trump administration, the letter says, “must not use Covid-19 as an opportunity to deploy its family separation policy again.”