Immigrants detained at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities around the country have been prohibited from seeing their friends and family in-person for more than two years, after health protocols were put in place at the start of the spread of COVID-19 in the United States. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and states loosen pandemic-related protocols, immigrants and their advocates say the lack of in-person visitations is cruel and that ICE should restore its pre-pandemic policy.
“This is borderline inhumane,” Fidel Garcia, a 27-year-old detained at the Golden Gate Annex in McFarland, Calif., tells TIME. Garcia has been detained by ICE for eight months and is working with an attorney to try to secure his release in order to see his 7-year-old daughter again. If a court rules against him, Garcia will be returned to Mexico, a country his parents took him away from when he was 4-years-old.
ICE suspended visitations on March 13, 2020. Because immigrants can often spend years in detention, advocates say they believe a significant number of detainees have gone the entire two years without seeing their children, spouses, or other loved ones.
Freedom for Immigrants, an organization that campaigns for an end to ICE detention, along with more than 20 immigrant advocacy organizations launched a campaign Monday to demand that ICE restore visitation. “I can’t underscore enough how much seeing someone you love through a piece of glass can actually gives you the will to keep going in that type of an environment,” says Layla Razavi, interim co-executive director of Freedom for Immigrants.
By comparison, the Federal Bureau of Prisons began restoring in-person visitations on a limited basis as early as October 3, 2020. By the end of 2021, most states had reopened prisons to visitors in some form—some states kept varying COVID-19 restrictions, and in some cases left it up to the discretion of prison wardens to determine visitation rules. Since the start of 2022, several states have further loosened restrictions on in-person visits for for those jailed or imprisoned.
ICE is an outlier in continuing to deny its detainees any visitations. It cites on-going public health concerns for its policy. “[ICE] continues to apply CDC guidance through its Pandemic Response Requirements (PRR), regularly communicating with senior medical leadership across the federal government on overarching detention health standards,” an ICE spokesperson tells TIME in a statement. “The agency is committed to delivering high-quality, evidence-based medical care, in a dignified and respectful manner, to detained individuals.”
The CDC’s guidance says that in congregate settings, including correctional facilities, the risk of COVID-19 spread is higher. But the guidance also notes that measures, including “restrictions on visitation,” are “known to lead to negative impacts on mental health and well-being.”
Since ending in-person visitation, ICE has extended access to some other forms of communication. “ICE recognizes the considerable impact of suspending personal visitation and has requested wardens and facility administrators maximize detainee use of teleconferencing, video visitation…email, and/or tablets, with extended hours where possible,” the ICE website says.
Still, Garcia says, the technology provided by ICE can be glitchy and costly, and communications are often monitored. Calls often drop even if they are paid for in advance, he says. They’re also no replacement for in-person visits, he says. When he was incarcerated at California county jail, he was able to hug, converse, and walk with his wife and daughter after they traveled eight-hours to see him. “I took [seeing my family] for granted,” Garcia says. Once ICE suspended in-person visitation, he says he realized quickly how much he relied on day-to-day support from his family to handle the stress of detention.
“Family is all we have in this world,” he says. “That’s all we have to hold on to—that’s all I have to hold on to—and it’s very difficult to be in this environment with that lack of visitation.”
The system is not without its congruities. Detainees with lawyers have been permitted to meet them in-person. But most detainees do not have lawyers. Unlike those charged with a crime, people with ongoing immigration cases are not entitled to an attorney. Roughly 80 percent of people in ICE detention with a case in immigration court have not had legal representation so far this fiscal year, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearing House, a research organization at Syracuse University.
In lieu of a lawyer, immigrants friends are families are often detainees’ only advocates, says Razavi of Freedom for Immigrants. “Oftentimes, it’s that person who loves you and is trekking for hours on a bus to get to you to spend a couple hours with you through a piece of glass, who’s going to go back into the world…and help you fight your case,” she says. ICE’s decision to prevent detainees from seeing family could have the effect of encouraging people to stop fighting their cases and self-deport, she says.
Garcia has certainly considered self-deportation, he says, but he has decided to remain in detention in hopes that he will see his daughter again. “I can’t give up for one and only reason, which is my daughter,” he says. “It’s very depressing. But we got to keep pushing. I keep pushing forward.”
In Florida, Daniel Lopez is preparing to see his mother, Petrona, for the first time since she was detained at an ICE facility more than two years ago. Two weeks ago, she was granted a temporary release while a court reconsiders the facts of her immigration case, and is living with another son in Maryland. Daniel says he’s happy to be able to talk to his mom every day again without interruption. But the experience of her detention has left emotional scares. Both of Petrona’s parents died while she was in detention. When Petrona’s mother died on Dec. 30, 2021, it took two days to reach Petrona and give her the news, Daniel says. She had no choice but to suffer the grief alone.
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