Don’t Let Trump Make Immigrants Victims of COVID-19

Last October, Alfredo Espinoza was working at a restaurant in Spokane, Washington, when he was picked up by Border Patrol agents who had been tipped off that an undocumented worker was there.

Being put in the Northwest Detention Center in nearby Tacoma made Espinoza, who suffered a heart attack in January, fear for his life. He faced the very real possibility that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 could sweep through the facility, which has about 840 detainees.

Health care experts and human rights advocates say the health of about 38,000 immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement demands the immediate release of detainees in the COVID-19 crisis.

Only recently did the forty-one-year-old Espinoza get relief. On March 16, he and eight other detainees––all with underlying illnesses––filed a federal lawsuit demanding release. Nine days later, Espinoza and another plaintiff were suddenly released. 

“They should be releasing people, and not just because they’re staring down a lawsuit,” says Matt Adams, who as legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project is one of the lawyers in this case. 

Health care experts and human rights advocates say the health of about 38,000 immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement demands the immediate release of detainees in the COVID-19 crisis.

But that is not happening, even after ICE officials admitted on March 24 that a thirty-one-year-old Mexican national in ICE custody at the Bergen County Jail in New Jersey had tested positive for the coronavirus, putting an end to dubious claims to the contrary by the Trump Administration. 

“Today, ICE made public what is supposedly ‘the first’ case of COVID-19 among the nearly 40,000 people in its custody across this country,” says the statement issued that day by Laura Rivera, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative. 

“We know there are many more. And this agency’s attempt to conceal the reality of growing COVID-19 transmission inside detention centers is endangering thousands of precious human lives.”


The COVID-19 crisis has made the public rethink its ways in many respects, with some local jails beginning to release non-violent offenders.

Even Trump said at his March 22 COVID-19 press briefing that release of federal, elderly nonviolent criminals was being considered.

But ICE, which oversees a sprawling network of detention centers, seems wedded to keeping its population detained. 

This population, after all, feeds Trump’s deportation machine, but at a potentially deadly cost.

Alarmed by the threat COVID-19 poses to this population, 763 organizations—including many immigrant rights’ groups—have called for the release of all ICE detainees.

“Jails, prisons, and detention centers are sites where people are acutely vulnerable to health complications and the impact of outbreaks,” the groups say in a March 19 letter to acting ICE Director Matthew Albence.

“Under the Trump Administration, we have seen a notable increase in reported deaths in detention, an alarming trend that is tied to fatal medical neglect, unsanitary conditions, and inadequate resources for people detained,” the letter says. 

More than 3,000 medical professionals have also written a letter to Albence urging him to release individuals and families from immigration detention because the transmission of infectious diseases in jails and prisons is “incredibly common.”

Given that continued detention puts detainees at mortal risk, it is important to remember that the immigration system is fundamentally built on civil––not criminal––law.

“All of these people in immigration detention are not being charged with crimes,” says Adams, the Northwest Immigrant Rights’ legal director, in an interview for this article. “Instead, they are there until the immigration judges decide if they qualify to stay in the United States.”

Since being picked up by Border Patrol at the Spokane restaurant, Espinoza has been charged with being in the United States without permission and ordered deported by an immigration judge. He is appealing this order.


Under Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, an undocumented immigrant stopped for a traffic violation can end up in detention, on a deportation track.

 “Clearly, the Trump Administration is trying to use the current health care crisis to advance its longstanding goal of shutting the border to asylum seekers.”

The public outcry in the spring of 2018 that made Trump back off from a formal policy of family separation should now carry over to ending detention of entire families. That’s what a federal lawsuit filed on March 21 in Washington, D.C., seeks to accomplish for families detained in three ICE facilities.

“This case presents the question of whether the government can recklessly expose petitioners—non-citizen parents and their children detained in purported civil immigration family detention­—to conscious shocking risk of exposure to contracting the deadly COVID-19,” the lawsuit states.

Measures taken to quarantine at detention centers provide little assurance, given how slow the administration has been to acknowledge COVID-19’s danger.

Seven detained immigrants­—all with serious health problems­—in four New York City area jails  are seeking release, in a recent lawsuit brought against ICE by the Bronx Defenders and the Legal Aid Society.

The sense of urgency was heightened by a corrections officer at the Bergen County Jail in New Jersey—one of these jails—testing positive for COVID-19. This is the same facility where ICE subsequently announced a detainee had tested positive.

Mounting fear of an outbreak prompted a hunger strike last week at the Essex County Correctional Facility in New Jersey. “ICE is doing nothing to rise to the occasion but instead continues to put the lives of hundreds of people at risk,” says the strikers’ statement.

Just how fast a disease can spread in immigration centers became all too apparent with the mumps outbreak that began in September 2018. The CDC found that 898 detainees and thirty-three detention staff members became infected.


Undocumented immigrants are getting hit from both sides in the COVID-19 crisis. While the detention population is being put at needless risk, those attempting to cross borders into the United States, even if they seek safe haven from persecution in their homeland, are being turned back.

In election-year mode, Trump––with unmistakable glee––announced his decision to turn around undocumented immigrants who come to the border and return those caught by Border Patrol.

“You know the story, but now it’s a national emergency. We can actually do something about it,” said Trump at his March 20 COVID-19 briefing. “They are going back to the country from where they came.”

 “Clearly, the Trump Administration is trying to use the current health care crisis to advance its longstanding goal of shutting the border to asylum seekers,” says Eleanor Acer, senior director for refugee protection at Human Rights First, in an interview for this article.

While COVID-19 is a worldwide crisis, it must not be a crisis that dismantles the bedrock principles set forth in the 1951 Refugee Convention and incorporated in the Refugee Act of 1980.

“Even in circumstances such as this, the United States must comply with both domestic and international law,” Elora Mukherjee, director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School, tells The Progressive.

During the past year, Trump’s Remain in Mexico initiative has forced about 60,000 asylum seekers who had already begun their asylum proceedings in the United States to wait on the Mexican side of the border.

The border closure left in limbo roughly 25,000 asylum seekers on the Mexico side of the border still waiting for proceedings on the U.S side. But with these hearings postponed at least until April 22 because of COVID-19, Congress needs to make sure that these asylum seekers are not penalized by this delay.  

 “You are really just creating a risk on both sides of the border,” says Daniella Burgi-Palomino, co-director of the Latin America Working Group. “By pushing and pushing people out, all you are going to do is incentivize them to cross in much more dangerous ways.”

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James Goodman | Radio Free (2021-09-22T01:39:04+00:00) » Don’t Let Trump Make Immigrants Victims of COVID-19. Retrieved from https://www.radiofree.org/2020/03/27/dont-let-trump-make-immigrants-victims-of-covid-19/.
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" » Don’t Let Trump Make Immigrants Victims of COVID-19." James Goodman | Radio Free - Friday March 27, 2020, https://www.radiofree.org/2020/03/27/dont-let-trump-make-immigrants-victims-of-covid-19/
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» Don’t Let Trump Make Immigrants Victims of COVID-19 | James Goodman | Radio Free | https://www.radiofree.org/2020/03/27/dont-let-trump-make-immigrants-victims-of-covid-19/ | 2021-09-22T01:39:04+00:00
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