WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
19 Mar 2020 | WOLA Statement

In COVID-19 Response, U.S. Government Should Emphasize Expansion of Alternatives to Detention for Migrants

Trump Administration Seeks Funds for ‘Migrant Quarantine Facilities’ Run by ICE and CBP

After signing both an $8.3 billion emergency response bill into law earlier this month and a second coronavirus aid package last night, the Trump administration and Congress are negotiating a third, massive legislative package to address the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The Trump administration is also requesting an additional $45.8 billion in emergency funding that could potentially become part of these negotiations. Notably, this emergency funding request includes several hundred million dollars in additional funding to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), meant in part to pay for the creation of up to 13 “migrant quarantine facilities” along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The requested $249 million in funding to ICE would cover the conversion of four facilities into spaces for quarantine; it would also pay for sanitation services, staff-related costs (including protection equipment), and charter aircraft for deportations. The $567 million to CBP would fund up to nine quarantine facilities, medical support and other costs related to the care of individuals in CBP custody, staff overtime and protective gear costs.

The proposal does not specify how long “quarantine” would last, and implies that CBP and ICE are expected to care for migrants showing symptoms of COVID-19. However, the track record of these agencies shows that they are ill-equipped to provide appropriate medical care to detainees.

A government report released last year found that overcrowding and prolonged detention at Border Patrol facilities was creating health risks both for detainees and staff. Six children died in Border Patrol custody over a nine-month period between 2018-2019, the first such deaths in a decade; at least two of them died of influenza, according to reporting by ProPublica. ICE has struggled to contain outbreaks of mumps, chicken pox, flu, and tuberculosis in its detention centers.

CBP and ICE are law enforcement—not humanitarian—agencies. They lack the institutional orientation necessary for providing long-term, adequate medical care to the adults and families in their custody. By emphasizing detention over a more humane approach to asylum seekers and migrants who are apprehended at the border or who are in removal proceedings, the Trump administration has increased the risks that these individuals face while in U.S. government custody. The risk is even more pronounced for migrants with medical conditions.

The requested additional funding for ICE’s COVID-19 response currently includes an unspecified expansion of the agency’s alternative to detention program, which assigns caseworkers to ensure that migrants remain within the system while awaiting adjudication of their case. The expansion of these programs is of vital importance: even in circumstances that preceded the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration’s detention practices fostered dangerous and dehumanizing conditions for asylum seekers and migrants in U.S. custody.

Expanding alternatives to detention is critical for fixing the badly broken immigration system in the United States. Instead, the Trump administration now appears to be using COVID-19 as further justification for shutting out asylum seekers completely, with the pending announcement of a new executive rule that would turn away those exercising their legal right to seek protection at the U.S.-Mexico border.

There is no denying that COVID-19 represents a major test for governments across the Western Hemisphere. But in order to act as effectively as possible in the interest of public health, the response by authorities needs to center rights-respecting policies and the preservation of due process. In the United States, expanding funding for alternatives to detention programs—rather than opening “migrant quarantine facilities,” or further decimating the right to asylum—would be a much-needed move in this direction.