Spreading COVID-19 through Detention and Deportation

With COVID-19 spreading like wildfire through packed detention centers, the U.S. government is not only endangering the lives of detained migrants but also exporting COVID-19 to Latin America and the Caribbean through deportations. Instead of heeding the collective call to #FreeThemAll, the U.S. government has repeatedly deported people with active cases of COVID-19 to their home countries, causing further spread of the pandemic. Latin American countries, several of which have long closed their borders and stopped accepting commercial flights in order to protect their populations from COVID-19, are forced to accept flights of deportees from the U.S., a number of whom have COVID-19. Guatemala alone has reported 119 people infected with COVID-19 on deportation flights from the U.S.

Detained migrants have repeatedly denounced the terrible conditions in detention centers that cause COVID-19 to spread rapidly, putting their lives at risk. In a letter to TransQueerPueblo, 29 migrants at the La Palma detention center in Eloy, Arizona write ‘There are 120 of us in a small space and that is how the pandemic propagates faster… We are asked to sleep opposite each other when we share the same air. The lack of information is depressing. We know nothing. ICE has no answer and our requests for parole are not answered. From our heart, we ask for help. We are human beings.  We do not want to die here, please.’

Another group of detained migrants who have asthma, diabetes, cancer, and other chronic illnesses write ‘Here, in detention, doctors do not attend us in a timely way, when we are sick or injured, they tell us to send a request. When we send the request it takes 4 to 15 days for them to come and check us, and they only prescribe us water.’  Read more of the letters collected by TransQueer Pueblo here.

The Intercept has exposed the terrible neglect faced by ICE detainee Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, who died of COVID earlier this month.  Just days ago, 34 year old Santiago Baten-Oxlag, a detainee at Stewart Detention Center, also died from COVID-19.  Continuing to detain immigrants — many of whom have fled the destruction wreaked by U.S. foreign policy — in conditions that foment the spread of a deadly pandemic and then failing to provide appropriate medical care puts many, many more people at risk of dying.

Deporting detainees from detention centers, where COVID-19 is spreading rapidly, then further spreads COVID-19 to their home countries, where the health systems are often extremely deficient.  In Central America, years of pressure from the IMF and U.S. to privatize everything have contributed to hollowed out public health systems with extremely limited supplies and extremely low numbers of ventilators and ICU beds.

Guatemala has repeatedly asked the U.S. to stop deporting people with COVID-19 but the U.S. only temporarily halted deportation flights and then resumed them again. Even when the U.S. has claimed that those on deportation flights did not have COVID, it turned out that some of them did. In fact, at one point in Guatemala, 20% of those with COVID-19 were people who had been deported from the U.S.  The US has also deported people with COVID-19 to HaitiColombiaEl Salvador, Jamaica, and Mexico.

SOAW condemns the ongoing detention of migrants — continuing to detain and deport will lead to more and more deaths, both in detention centers and in Latin America.  We invite you to join the call to #FreeThemAll!

To learn more, we invite you to join a NISGUA webinar that SOAW is co-sponsoring titled ‘From the U.S. to Central America: Asylum, deportations, and COVID-19.’  The June 10th webinar will discuss deportations in the context of COVID-19 and the inhumane so-called safe third country agreements that give the U.S. the power to deport asylum-seekers to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador even if they are not from these countries.  This puts people in even more precarious conditions and violates international refugee law.

In solidarity,

School of the Americas Watch