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Jenna Tsui headshot

Voices Are Silenced as COVID-19 Spreads Through Immigrant Detention Centers

By Jenna Tsui
Immigrant Detention Centers

The COVID-19 threat is likely to have a huge impact on the world for the foreseeable future. Public health experts recommend strategies such as social distancing, frequent hand washing and wearing a mask to help stop the spread of the deadly virus. But what happens when a person's entire living situation makes it challenging — and often impossible — to follow these measures? Such is the case for many immigrants who came to the United States to apply for asylum and found themselves in one of the country's immigrant detention centers. 

Many of these immigrants arrive here with histories filled with violence, poverty and other tremendous hardships. They put their lives on the line to reach the U.S. after concluding their current situations were too dangerous, and no better options existed. 

The heartbreaking reality is that many got to this country and traded their previously life-threatening conditions for others, having no choice but to stay in overcrowded immigration detention facilities during a pandemic.

The feds review immigrant detention centers, and the results are horrific

As statistics showed COVID-19 cases in immigrant detention centers rising — and some news outlets reported deaths — federal government officials surveyed 188 facilities to get workers' input on several crucial, timely matters. Their report confirmed a 496 percent increase in the number of detainees testing positive for the coronavirus. That jump happened across only four weeks. 

Most of the study's respondents felt prepared to handle COVID-19 but worried about what might happen if the virus continued to spread. Many also commented that social distancing was virtually out of the question. Another problem was that facilities admitted not having enough dedicated areas to isolate people with suspected infections. 

Moreover, 29 percent of facilities did not have negative pressure ventilation systems to stop the spread of airborne infections associated with suspected cases. Health officials acknowledged that COVID-19 can stay suspended in the air depending on certain factors, such as humidity. 

In addition, COVID-19 research indicates that indoor air contains the most contaminants, and recycled air causes the infections to spread more. The government's documents showed that as many as 75 people live together in "pods" while detained, increasing the likelihood of rampant transmission.

Despite those findings, the government officials overseeing investigations did not make recommendations for mitigating the issues and keeping people safer. Those authorities also did not get the perspectives of the detainees themselves — only the employees at these immigrant detention centers. 

Detainees face punishment for speaking out

The people housed in immigrant detention centers aren't staying silent about this issue. The trouble is their actions may not be noticeable enough to spark widespread change. One investigative report profiled how some people planned strikes within the facilities but ultimately called them off. They encountered obstacles when trying to spread the word outside of the pods where they lived. 

However, some residents persisted by creating and holding signs to convey their distress and highlight the dangers within their environment. Some information eventually spread to the outside when a detainee's boyfriend recorded footage from a video chat and distributed it online. Making such decisions comes with risks, though. Some guards take disciplinary action and even use excessive physical force against those who try to show their plight, according to the investigative report. 

After some detainees used a video app to draw attention to the severity of their circumstances, they were put into solitary confinement. A representative from one of the detention facilities involved confirmed that people risk such consequences for disrupting a facility's orderly operations. Group protests automatically break the rules. Individuals band together and accept what might happen, knowing the public health dangers outweigh potential punitive action. 

How can people fight back against this injustice?

Staying silent about this gross injustice is a virtually guaranteed way to help it flourish. The COVID-19 pandemic is terrifying enough for people who have access to protective equipment and can socially distance. Many detention center residents make masks from socks, knowing there's no hope of staying safely apart from others, but wanting to do anything they can. 

Those on the outside can advocate for improved conditions by sharing the stories of legal professionals and others on the front lines working to combat these human rights violations within detention centers. Go beyond posting short status updates, and link to material that gives firsthand perspectives from those affected and the people working hard to help them. 

It's also helpful to stay abreast of recommended policy changes provided by people who want to make these detention centers safer. Advocates suggest providing occupants with coronavirus tests upon arrival at facilities, giving them adequate hygiene supplies and stopping detainee transfers. Many experts want to go further by eliminating the mandatory detention imposed on all asylum seekers. 

People can also donate to organizations that are actively working to assist people in detention centers, too. They made positive impacts against strong headwinds before the coronavirus came to the U.S., and you can rest assured your money will go an especially long way now.

Human Rights Watch ran an online petition to free asylum seekers during the pandemic, while the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offers an assortment of statistics to illustrate its ongoing impact.

In Texas, the nonprofit RAICES and other organizations across the Lone Star State are doing what they can to assist immigrants, and could all use individual or corporate support.

​​​​​​​Awareness can add momentum to the push for change

It's easy to feel discouraged and that problems like the ones happening in immigrant detention centers are too big to conquer. However, don't lose sight of the fact that you can help make a difference by telling others what you know and urging them to act along with you. Informed conversations are essential ingredients for persistent change.

Image credit: Sean DuBois/Unsplash

Jenna Tsui headshot

Jenna Tsui is a technology journalist who covers the latest news in technology, disruptive tech, and environmental science. You can read more of her work at The Byte Beat.

Read more stories by Jenna Tsui