Experts: To save public health, release immigration detainees

Across more than 200 immigration detention centers in the United States, tens of thousands of adults and children are experiencing heightened risk of COVID-19 infection and outbreak. Overcrowding and subpar hygiene and medical care make infectious disease outbreaks in these facilities common.

Two Cornell researchers are part of a multi-institution team arguing that the solution is the safe release of detainees into their communities.

“The kind of prolonged immigration detention that is the default in the United States – and which has only increased during the past four years – has long been at odds with fundamental rights and public health,” said Ian Kysel, visiting assistant clinical professor at Cornell Law School and co-author of the report. “But the mass detention of immigrants during this pandemic is even more shockingly disproportionate because it puts the entire community – especially detained immigrants and detention facility staff – at much greater risk of contracting this deadly disease.”

Kysel – a grant recipient from Migrations: A Global Grand Challenge – is co-author with Basil Safi, executive director of the Office of Engagement Initiatives, of the report, “Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in Immigration Detention Centers Requires the Release of Detainees,” published Nov. 19 in the American Journal of Public Health.

The corresponding author is Maria-Elena De Trinidad Young, assistant professor of public health at the University of California, Merced. Other co-authors represent the University of Michigan; the University of Iowa; the University of California, Irvine; and the Yale University School of Public Health.

In the commentary, the research group leverages its expertise in public health, law, social sciences and epidemiology, as well as the health and community impacts on immigration enforcement, to outline how prevention methods like wearing masks and other equipment to minimize exposure to the coronavirus, social distancing, increased hygiene and better ventilation will not do enough to keep people in detention centers safe from the extremely contagious virus.

The group argues that, viewed through the hierarchy of controls framework commonly used to evaluate workplace safety, such measures are extremely challenging to implement in the densely populated infrastructure of immigration detention centers. Although immigrants are detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for administrative cases only, the facilities that house them are usually currently operating or decommissioned prisons and jails that keep people in close physical proximity. Detention centers have also frequently been cited for subpar medical care.

“A public health approach requires rethinking the detention environment and ultimately, how best to protect the health of everyone involved – immigrants, staff and local communities,” Safi said. “My hope is that this critically important issue can be supported through the greater involvement of faculty, staff, students and partners intent on using community-engaged learning to improve the lives of these detainees and advocating for their release.”

If immigrants are released into their communities, individuals will be able to isolate more safely, engage in social distancing that is not possible in confined detention centers, seek diagnostic testing, practice good hygiene and access better health care, Kysel added.

The group identifies further failures in detention centers, such as a lack of testing, which proliferates the spread through asymptomatic carriers, and refusing to release asylum seekers and migrant families who have been found to have a credible fear of persecution. The government has broad discretion to release many of those currently detained, including asylum-seekers, and Kysel is hopeful that this work will reach law and policymakers who can rethink immigration and dramatically reduce the reliance on detention.

According to Kysel, this work grew out of an amicus brief he filed in federal court with his Cornell colleagues Beth Lyon, clinical professor of law, and Chantal Thomas, the Radice Family Professor of Law; former Cornell law professor Gerald Torres; the pro bono assistance of the Foley Hoag, LLP law firm on behalf of Safi; a number of other public health experts; and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The work also has its roots in a webinar held last summer by Safi and Kysel, co-hosted with Physicians for Human Rights, looking at public health and legal implications of COVID-19 and immigration detention.

“This interdisciplinary and cross-university collaboration has helped us bring new insights to the problem of immigration detention in the midst of the pandemic and frame policy-relevant findings,” said Kysel. “We hope our paper will strengthen arguments being made by immigrants and those engaged in oversight, and not just the public health community.”

Megan DeMint is a communication specialist supporting Global Cornell.

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