USA: Amid COVID-19 pandemic, authorities must release immigration detainees

The Trump administration is failing to protect people in immigration detention during the COVID-19 public health emergency, Amnesty International said today in a new report, ‘We are adrift, about to sink’: The looming COVID-19 disaster in US immigration detention facilities

The United States has the largest immigration detention system in the world, with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) holding nearly 40,000 people in over 200 centers across the country. Detainees at several ICE detention facilities have launched hunger strikes to demand their freedom and protest against dangerous and inadequate hygiene and sanitation conditions.

“Today, the health and safety of every one of us is bound together. The United States has confirmed more cases of COVID-19 than any other country in the world, yet ICE continues to fail to adopt effective measures to prevent the pandemic in immigration centers across the country, putting everyone’s safety in peril,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

“ICE’s unnecessary detention of tens of thousands of people poses a massive threat to public health. Detaining anyone solely for migration-related reasons during a global pandemic is cruel, reckless and deadly. ICE must urgently provide alternatives to detention and grant humanitarian parole to immigration detainees except in the most extraordinary of circumstances requiring ongoing detention.”

ICE and its detention facilities have failed to adequately provide soap and sanitizer or introduce social distancing. Nor has it halted the unnecessary transfers of people between facilities in the interest of public health, routinely transporting thousands in and out of facilities. ICE’s unnecessary and punitive detention of people based solely on their migration status constitutes ill-treatment and discriminatory denial of the right to health. ICE has the obligation to grant humanitarian parole to immigration detainees before any more people in its custody contract COVID-19. Thus far, ICE has failed to adopt even the most minimum necessary measures to protect public health both in and around its large network of facilities.

While downplaying the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks in its detention facilities, ICE has concealed and understated the number of detainees who may have been exposed to or contracted COVID-19, hiding vital information about potential outbreaks from the people detained, their lawyers and loved ones, and the public. Amnesty International has received consistent reports of suspected COVID-19 cases and lockdowns in multiple ICE facilities, where lawyers said ICE officials refused to comment on the health situations. Lawyers have reported that they lack information about risks in ICE facilities, and that those being monitored for COVID-19 are often not being tested. ICE personnel and employees who engage in ICE operations face significant risks of contracting COVID-19, which they can then transmit to those who are detained, as well as their home communities.

Those living with underlying illnesses – including people who are immunocompromised due to HIV – have shared through their lawyers disturbing accounts of substandard health care and inadequate conditions. Those dangerous conditions put them at heightened risk to contract and become severely ill or die from COVID-19, including medical personnel failing to provide antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV, as well as denial of requests for hand sanitizer and face masks.

As the pandemic spread across the United States since January, ICE continued to receive and to detain families in its family residential centers, in some cases receiving families who were already symptomatic of illness, according to lawyers. At the Dilley facility, personnel of ICE and GEO Group failed to provide those detained with COVID-19 education, hand sanitizer, or protective or cleaning supplies, despite some people’s pre-existing health conditions. Facility staff did not make testing for COVID-19 available and had no plans to do so.

A pregnant mother from Honduras who was seeking asylum with her four-year-old daughter, described her fear of contracting COVID-19 and dying, due to the inadequate conditions and care at the Dilley facility: “I cannot keep a sufficient distance from other people to keep myself safe from contracting the virus if they have it. I must be close to others all of the time. I share a room, bathroom, and the dining hall. All locations in this jail are communal.”

Staff at ICE’s Karnes facility have also lacked access to COVID-19 tests and have not followed US public health standards for preventing the spread of COVID-19. Nearly all families reported routinely poor health care, which was not even adequate for treating headaches and the common cold. Parents and children in the facility were sick with cold-like symptoms, such as coughs, congestion, and fever, and numerous staff exhibited similar cold-like symptoms. Staff did not consistently wear masks or practice social distancing.

Amnesty International calls on ICE to urgently provide alternatives to detention, and grant humanitarian parole to immigration detainees except in the most extraordinary of circumstances requiring ongoing detention. ICE should prioritize those who are older, have underlying medical conditions, or are otherwise at higher-risk if they contract COVID-19. ICE should also immediately release all children and families it is holding in immigration detention, and the US Congress should conduct public oversight to ensure DHS is using its authority to parole as many people as possible from ICE detention. Amnesty International urges US state governors and local authorities to utilize their authority to instruct immigration detention facilities, and county and local jails, to reduce their immigration detainee occupancy.

Background and context

On March 24, Amnesty International issued guidelines for governments in the Americas to adopt human rights-compliant responses to COVID-19. On March 17, Amnesty International and partner organizations called on the 11 US governors whose states host the majority of immigration detainees, to use their public health and licensing authority to instruct federal immigration detention facilities and county and local jails and prisons to substantially reduce their detainee occupancy capacity.

On March 31, 2020, the four lead UN agencies on human rights, global health, migrants and refugees, issued a joint statement calling for the release without delay of migrants and asylum seekers being held in cramped and unsanitary immigration detention conditions. The agencies also called for the immediate release of all children and their families, as well as those detained without sufficient legal basis.

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact:

Lucy Scholey, Media Relations, Amnesty International Canada (English branch), 613-853-2142,

Read more:

Americas: Governments must halt dangerous and discriminatory detention of migrants and asylum seekers (News, 2 April 2020)

Americas: Do’s and don’ts for regional authorities when implementing public health measures to manage COVID-19 (Research, 24 March 2020)