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Expert Voices

Torture Survivors Confront COVID-19 in ICE Detention

Published July 22, 2020
A wire fence with out of focus buildings behind it.

Curt Goering is CVT executive director, and Darlene Lynch is head of external relations, CVT Georgia.

After being targeted for serving as a translator for the United States Army in Afghanistan, Fahran was forced to flee for his life and submit himself to U.S. border officials to seek asylum. Rediet was imprisoned twice after she took a stand for democracy in her African nation, only averting death after traveling by boat, by car and on foot to seek protection here. Pablo and his wife lived in fear of lawless Colombian gangs that threatened them and their family and had no choice but to make the dangerous trek to the U.S. to escape the gangs’ long reach.

Far too many women and men who have endured and fled similar terrors—and who are in desperate need of rehabilitative care—are suffering in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities around the country. As leaders with the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), where we care for thousands of survivors of torture and persecution at domestic and international locations, we are haunted by the knowledge that survivors are among those languishing in detention. CVT’s own research suggests that up to 44 percent of U.S. refugees are torture survivors, a figure that the government similarly attributes to those in the country who are seeking, or who have been granted, asylum.

Now torture survivors seeking asylum in this country face a deadly new enemy: the spread of COVID-19 in immigration detention facilities nationwide.

This highly-contagious virus spreads especially rapidly in detention, where people are held in close quarters with limited access to protective equipment and hygiene supplies. Each day, the news is worse. In mid-April, ICE reported that 105 detained immigrants had been infected with the virus. One week later, that number had risen six-fold, to 606.  Today, ICE reports that more than 3,500 people in their custody have contracted the virus, and the numbers will only continue to rise. These figures don’t include the nearly 1,000 detention employees who have succumbed to the disease nationwide since February, or the many others who have been exposed. And now, the virus has claimed the lives of two men in ICE detention, including a 34-year-old man who fled violence in Guatemala and was detained in Stewart Detention Center in Georgia, where CVT operates a southern healing center for survivors like him.

Because immigration detention facilities look and operate like prisons, most wrongly assume that people held there are facing criminal charges or have been found to pose a risk to public safety. But people in immigration detention are there while their civil immigration cases work their way through the courts. These are not criminal proceedings, and so immigration detention cannot legitimately be used to punish, and yet it is. The overwhelming majority of people in detention pose no threat to public safety. Indeed, almost 20 percent of the detained population has already been determined by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to have a credible claim for asylum or a related form of relief specific to torture survivors.

For torture survivors, being detained when they thought they had reached a place of safety is a cruel trick. To endure torture is to be dehumanized, psychologically dismantled, forced to endure terrible pain, and rendered powerless. By taking agency away, detention is retraumatizing, triggering memories of past torture experiences at the hands of police and prison guards and increasing anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide and other post-trauma symptoms. When detention is indefinite in nature, such as in ICE facilities, survivors’ suffering is immeasurably worse.

And now, survivors must cope with the additional threat of illness and death posed by a virus that circulates invisibly around them. Survivors and others held in ICE facilities have pled for better health and safety protections, including face masks, soap and improved social distancing. There have been hunger strikes and protests met with tear gas and rubber bullets. While authorities say they are taking all practical steps to keep facilities safe, as of mid-May, ICE had tested a small fraction of the tens of thousands of people in custody, making it nearly impossible to detect and control the disease.

In Georgia, CVT staff reports that the situation is even more dire. Georgia is home to some of the nation’s largest detention facilities, including Stewart Detention Center, where up to 1,900 people are incarcerated on any day. According to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as of mid-June, 113 people detained at Stewart had contracted COVID-19, one of the highest numbers of infections among detainees nationwide, and 57 employees had tested positive, among the highest rates of employee infection in any correctional facility in the state.

Stewart has a well-documented history of medical staff shortages, inadequate health care and unsanitary conditions that have endangered people long before the current pandemic and continue today. Recently, eye-witnesses at Stewart reported that, after detainees hung sheets on their windows and doors to protest the lack of care for the increasing number of people falling ill, guards threw them on the floor, shot them with pepper spray and pepper spray bullets, and hauled them away in handcuffs to solitary confinement.

ICE has recognized that to stem the spread of the disease and save lives it needs to dramatically reduce the number of people detained, including by releasing those who are most medically-vulnerable. Family members and others stand ready to ensure safe housing in the community for these individuals and organizations like CVT are prepared to treat their emotional wounds. Yet, ICE had released only about 900 people by May 4—less than three percent of the total population. Only after the courts ordered ICE to release people at high risk of COVID-related death, such as the elderly and those suffering from chronic diseases, did ICE authorize additional releases, for a total of about 500 as of late June.

Torture survivors like Fahran, Rediet and Pablo are strong and resilient, but this is an unfair fight for individuals seeking refuge. They came to the United States for safety and a new beginning, and instead find themselves battling an invisible enemy while held captive in unsafe conditions. They deserve a chance to survive and to thrive in this country and they should be released immediately.

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