Since April 24, Frio County confirmed seven cases of COVID-19 at the South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall, Texas. This news is deeply concerning, but it is also unsurprising to me and other attorneys representing clients in ICE custody. For over a month, we have called on ICE to implement basic preventative measures amid the current pandemic to ensure the safety of the thousands of immigrants detained in Texas and across the country. However, despite numerous warnings, ICE has recklessly failed to act. Now, the hundreds of immigrants held at the Pearsall detention center are at risk of serious illness or death.
In early April, just as shelter-in-place orders were being issued across Texas, I visited the Pearsall detention center to prepare a client for a hearing. Even under normal circumstances, visiting clients in immigration detention is an ordeal. I regularly travel more than four hours, roundtrip, to see my clients. Then, the wait to see my clients is often at least an hour, sometimes more. Since the outbreak, I make a life-or-death calculation every time I need to see someone in detention: not visiting my client could significantly compromise my representation and my client’s chances of avoiding deportation; however, at the same time, going to the detention center could mean exposing myself and my loved ones to the virus. Before the recent outbreak, I also worried about the risk that I could unintentionally introduce the virus into the facility.
Although ICE has implemented extensive screening and protective measures for attorneys entering the facility, ICE agents and detention center staff were, at least until recently, apparently exempt from these rules, thus undermining their effectiveness completely. As I sat in the lobby in early April and watched dozens of staff members enter the facility with no protection or screening, I knew that it would be only a matter of time before the virus spread to the detention center.
The immigrants detained in Pearsall also knew that an outbreak in the facility was imminent. On March 23, they protested ICE’s failure to take adequate precautions to protect them, expressing concern about the lack of screening for new arrivals, the absence of disinfectants, and the impossibility of maintaining social distance in the detention center. Rather than responding to these valid concerns, however, ICE violently suppressed the protest using pepper spray and physical restraints.
ICE’s failure to take reasonable action to protect the immigrants in its custody has highlighted the disregard for human life that characterizes our entire immigration system. Now, more than ever, is the time to take a stand against this cruelty and to fight for the rights of immigrants in this country.