I am an immigrant and I live in New York City. I know now is a time to stay home and be safe, but I work with other immigrants and families who don’t have that option.
So, while we fight for our health and applaud those essential workers on the front lines of the pandemic, we need to also remember that many of those on the COVID-19 battlefront are immigrants, some of whom will have no “normal” to return to when the fight ends.
Right now families across Mexico and the U.S. are being held in unsanitary immigration detention facilities for no good reason. Many of them are parents and children who left home to escape violence and unbearable conditions in their countries of origin. Now, as detainees, they face the deadly risk of infection by COVID-19. They are held in crowded conditions, are unable to socially distance, and lack access to adequate health care, medicine, and, in some cases, even basic things like soap to wash their hands.
This pandemic has reminded us how vulnerable all of us are, even as it casts a harsh light on economic fault lines and festering injustices in our society. Among those injustices is the inhumane nature of the U.S. immigration system. Even during this pandemic, undocumented workers – many of whom are out there doing essential work every day on farms, in warehouses, restaurant kitchens, and in nursing homes – and their families continue to be subject to detention and summary deportation.
As the pandemic began, Global Exchange took the lead to bring together organizations across the U.S., Mexico, and Central America to call on both U.S. President Trump and Mexican President López Obrador to immediately free all immigrants from unsafe detention centers to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Our letter underlines that “the health and safety of detainees who have committed mere civil infractions (often in the act of seeking asylum from violence in their homelands) is in the hands of Mexican and U.S. authorities, who are morally and legally bound to take immediate action to minimize their risk of infection without undermining their rights to due process”.
More than a hundred leading human rights, immigrant rights and social justice organizations from both Mexico and the U.S. have signed on.
As of writing, federal courts in Mexico have backed the demands to free detainees due to the public health conditions generated by COVID-19.
To give broader coverage to these issues, we hosted webcasts with immigrant rights leaders from Mexico and the U.S. in both Spanish and English. They addressed thousands of viewers on the pressures immigrants, especially women and indigenous migrants, are facing. They looked at the broad safety and legal issues faced by immigrants with a focus on detention centers in both countries where those imprisoned face greatly elevated risk from the pandemic.
In April, Global Exchange joined a fast-growing national campaign to support the nearly 100 migrants who had started a hunger strike to press their release demands at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in Southern California. The Otay Mesa facility, run by the private prison giant, CoreCivic, is the largest immigrant detention facility in the United States with the highest number of COVID-19 cases.
Our immigration system has long been broken. There will be no “normal” when this pandemic loses its grip – we will still face a long fight to build a new immigration system that respects basic human values, welcomes refugees, and has open arms for those who have suffered violence in their homelands.
Marco Castillo is the U.S.-Mexico Program Co-Director at Global Exchange.