by Melanie Pino-Elliott

I keep waiting for the game changer on immigrant abuse—that one new piece of information, that one image that goes viral, that one step too far that will finally be its undoing. The thing that will make the American people rise up en masse, that will awaken the conscience of those who have supported it or remained neutral until now—that will make them go, “Well gee, I may not want these people coming to the U.S., but clearly what we’re doing to them is not okay.”  

That thing does not exist.

Family separation wasn’t it. Tormenting asylum seekers wasn’t it. The art installation featuring the actual sounds of children crying in agony wasn’t it. Squalid conditions, sexual assault, psychological torture—not it.

So what about this thing that’s happening now? What about the COVID-19 pandemic spreading further and further while detained immigrants remain sitting ducks in facilities that are prime breeding grounds for the deadly virus, turning the systematic abuse into actual genocide?

We probably won’t call it that. Genocide, like “concentration camp,” is one of those terms that automatically sounds hyperbolic. Obviously nothing in the 21st-Century United States of America could have anything in common with stuff that happened in Nazi Germany. That was one of the big lessons of the Holocaust, right? That we can pretty much chill out now, because nothing anyone else does throughout history will ever be that bad by comparison?

We find ourselves in a situation where those who wish immigrants gone don’t even have to do anything. Just maintain the status quo: keep them in facilities where social distancing is impossible and basic health and hygiene materials aren't available, to say nothing of premiums like hand sanitizer, masks, or gloves. Continuing to detain migrants under these circumstances is tantamount to condemning them to death. And then we can just shrug and say, “Hey, we had our hands full taking care of Americans. We can’t be held responsible for what happened to a bunch of foreigners.” (Whom we detained. Indefinitely. Without charge or trial. But whatever, details.)

To be fair, ICE isn’t doing nothing, exactly. They put Pandemic Response Requirements in place—one month after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. They released 700 detained migrants—out of a population of about 30,000. So kudos, I guess, for exceeding my complete lack of expectations?

In other cases, however, ICE seems to be digging in its heels and exacerbating the situation even further.

For instance, guards in several facilities have apparently developed a habit of retaliating against detained migrants seeking protection by pepper-spraying them—even when those migrants are actually volunteering to be deported, which is supposedly the goal of detention being cruel in the first place.

In a federal case alleging additional delays on releasing immigrant children in the midst of the pandemic, Judge Dolly M. Gee ordered the government on April 24th to expedite the release of children in its custody. The Trump administration was found to be in violation of the Flores Agreement, according to which they’re actually supposed to release minors within 20 days of taking custody, even without the looming threat of the pandemic. This follows a ruling from the same judge in late March that the federal government should “make continuous efforts” to release the detained children due to the imminent health and safety risks. At this time, we do not know of any children who have been released as a result, nor do we have any evidence that the administration intends to comply with these orders.

So to answer the question I posed earlier, no, the pandemic probably isn’t the game-changer either. Maybe I have to accept that a big, sweeping transformation isn’t going to happen anytime soon. So what now?

Keep on fighting.

As with all crises, we have to remember that the small things we do can make a big difference and that each person who might be helped by our actions is worth fighting for. With that in mind, here are some concrete steps to take to help immigrants today:

●      Ask your governor to use their emergency powers to close detention centers in your state.

Click here to find the phone number for your governor’s office and call using the following script from Never Again Action:

“Hi, My name is [name], I'm a [state] resident living in [city]. The detention centers in our state are going to become death camps for the immigrants locked inside, unless Governor _______ uses his/her emergency powers to release them immediately. Will the governor empty the detention centers today?”

●      Donate to organizations like Freedom for Immigrants and RAICES that are working tirelessly to serve and effect change on behalf of immigrants and refugees.

Still getting a salary during the pandemic? Consider donating some of your stimulus check to the undocumented immigrants who aren’t eligible for assistance at this difficult time.

●      Know someone in detention? The DC Detention Visitation Network recommends the following resources and language for sharing them:

"If you have concerns about coronavirus and would like more information, or if you feel you need to connect with people who provide support...the CAIR Coalition may be able to help. In addition, you should be able to reach Freedom For Immigrants by calling 9233 from the phone in your living area. The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee also has information and you can reach them at 888-444-1970. Please feel free to share these numbers."

●      Connect with someone in detention.

Though in-person visits are currently suspended, there are a number of organizations offering pal programs:

Freedom for Immigrants

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS)

DC Detention Visitation Network

Queer Detainee Empowerment Project

Melanie Pino-Elliott has conducted research and communications in the fields of international affairs, public policy, and human rights. She holds an MS in Criminology from the University of Pennsylvania and currently works in nonprofit development.

Cover art by Anthony Sanchez, who was deported to Mexico in February