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Free Families in ICE Detention and Protect Them During the COVID-19 Pandemic



Right now, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is locking up approximately 150 families in arbitrary and prolonged detention at three U.S. facilities — the Berks family detention center in Pennsylvania, and two other detention centers in Dilley and Karnes City, Texas. Although children are supposed to be held in these facilities for no more than 20 days under the long-standing Flores Settlement Agreement, that limit is regularly ignored. These children and parents came here seeking safety from violence and persecution, and were instead thrown behind bars. Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, they are at increased risk of contracting COVID-19 while in crowded conditions with inadequate hygiene and negligent medical care.

What’s worse: ICE has weaponized its public health response to COVID-19 and is now pursuing Family Separation 2.0 — Families can stay together in prolonged detention, or children can be released while their parents remain behind in detention indefinitely and face possible deportation.

These families are just a few of the faces of ICE’s cruelty and disregard for the health and wellbeing of children and parents:

Ana* (22) and Victoria* (3) fled Honduras after repeated threats against their lives after her partner and Victoria’s father was killed because of his political beliefs. They requested asylum in the U.S. over nine months ago and locked up ever since. Both spent both their birthdays behind bars. ICE was informed multiple times that Victoria is asthmatic and particularly at risk for COVID-19, but refuses to release them. Ana has been suffering from ovarian cysts that have pained her daily for months, and has not received the appropriate medical care. Ana is trying to stay strong for Victoria as she watches her daughter deteriorate in front of her: Victoria now has anxiety attacks, nightmares, and wets the bed—something she didn’t used to do. She’s also started pinching and biting herself, and chewing on her clothes. The Dilley psychologist told Ana this was “normal.” This time in detention has taken a severe toll on her daughter and stolen Victoria’s life in a way Ana never wanted or intended — she was just looking for a way to protect them from harm.

Karla* (43) and Katherine* (15) left Honduras after being targeted because of their religion, their political beliefs, and their refusal to submit to the gangs. They have been detained for over nine months. Karla and Katherine have serious medical issues that cause them continuous pain and deteriorating health, which were repeatedly brought to ICE’s attention but have been ignored or dismissed. Doctors initially thought Karla had tuberculosis when she arrived in Dilley and placed her and Katherine in medical isolation. They never confirmed this diagnosis, and she has been coughing for almost the entirety of her time in detention. Katherine suffers from tachycardia and has suffered several cardiac attacks. After one attack, when Katherine was struggling to breathe, Karla was told by a medical staff member not to bring her daughter unless she was “turning purple.” Katherine also suffers from severe gastritis. She vomits multiple times a day and has a lot of trouble keeping food down but her requests for dietary accommodations have been ignored. Katherine feels increasing anxiety and despair in detention, believing the U.S. has forgotten about children like her and left them to grow up in detention. She lives in constant fear of returning to Honduras and said that she would rather die locked up than go back because she would die either way. Karla feels like she’s been given an impossible situation: if she had stayed in Honduras, her daughter would have been raped or killed by the gangs; but if she stays here, in indefinite detention, she watches her daughter waste away.

Paola* (20) and Jose* (1) fled horrific abuse at the hands of Paola’s kidnapper and domestic abuser in Guatemala. While detained by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at the Donna tent facility in Texas, she and her infant son were subject to a rapid deportation program, and were never provided the opportunity to seek legal assistance. When Paola asked, CBP told her “the lawyers aren’t working right now because of coronavirus.” With air conditioning blasting in the tent, they slept on the floor with a mat and aluminum blanket. Jose, who has respiratory issues, quickly became very ill and tested positive for the flu. After he developed breathing problems in medical isolation in another CBP facility, he was sent to a hospital for five days and put on a machine to help him breathe. Jose spent his first birthday hospitalized under CBP custody. Jose’s health deteriorated again when he was later detained by ICE in Dilley, suffering a cough and restricted breathing. In mid-May, ICE approached Paola with the impossible “choice” of separating from Jose or staying in detention indefinitely. But, thanks to the relentless advocacy of his lawyers and sustained pressure from advocates like Amnesty, Paola and Jose were both finally released in late May.

Instead of freeing families together, as it has the legal authority to do and has historically done, ICE is choosing to keep them locked up indefinitely or to separate children from their parents. Neither is an option.

Ana and Victoria, Karla and Katherine — and all families — must be immediately released together. They have communities waiting to welcome them, and there is no reason — especially during a pandemic — not to release children with their parents.


Deputy Field Office Direc
Deputy Field Office Director
ICE Acting Director
Matthew T. "Matt"
ICE Acting Director
Office of the Director
United States Department of Homeland Security