By: Anali Looper

The months since the COVID-19 outbreak began have been trying for all of us. But for the thousands of people locked in immigration detention centers, trying doesn’t even begin to describe the situation. As a nonprofit immigration attorney in central Texas, I work inside detention centers helping people apply for asylum and other immigration benefits, and I can tell you that even before COVID-19 health care inside these facilities was suspect at best. Early this year one of my colleagues told me she spoke with a detained man who explained how he’d had to use a shoelace as a makeshift catheter because he was unable to get adequate healthcare. Even inhalers or widely available medications are sometimes withheld from those detained.


Since March we haven’t been allowed into the local immigration detention center, but we’re still able to communicate with those inside and what we’ve heard is truly disturbing. We’ve received reports that those being “quarantined” with COVID-19 have been held in the same cells with those who aren’t sick, putting them in mortal danger. Though federal courts have encouraged detention centers to release those detainees with preexisting conditions that make them especially susceptible to COVID-19, we have continually seen parole requests denied for people who fit that description. Several times individuals who weren’t granted parole were then transferred to another detention center where their preexisting conditions led those deportation officers to immediately grant their release. Unfortunately, several of these individuals were already seriously ill. 


In another instance, a man with critically serious heart problems had been detained for nearly a year. The facility refused to release him until he was so ill that he had to be rushed to the ER. The attending doctor told the detention center staff in no uncertain terms that the man would die either from COVID-19 or his untreated heart condition if they did not release him immediately. They put him on a bus the next day, showing that their reputation and potential liability were the only factors that mattered.


Though a detainee’s flight risk, connections to the community, likelihood of immigration relief, and health conditions should be the factors considered in a parole determination, it’s clear that for the facility—which had empty beds but a contract to fill with a private prison company—finances trumped the very lives of the men detained.


It’s worth remembering that there is no law requiring asylum seekers to be held in detention at all, let alone during a worldwide pandemic. Please remember as you head to the ballot box this November that we desperately need more humane immigration policies that welcome our immigrant brothers and sisters instead of placing them in greater danger when they arrive in our country.