Office of Government Relations

The Dangers of Detention During COVID-19

May 11, 2020
Office of Government Relations

By: Rushad Thomas

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic (commonly known as coronavirus) presents a host of challenges to our immigration system. The Episcopal Church was no great supporter of the pre-pandemic enforcement regime and has long supported alternatives to immigrant detention. In the face of a virus easily spread by contact in close quarters, our government has an obligation to ensure the health and well-being of all those in its custody, including detained immigrants.

Immigrant Detention: Unnecessary Even in Normal Times

Even in the absence of a pandemic, there are far better ways to monitor those undergoing immigration removal proceedings than keeping asylum seekers in detention. Detention unnecessarily exposes immigrants to prison-like conditions. The Episcopal Church has long supported alternatives to immigrant detention that maintain family unity and provide immigrants with access to the physical and mental health supports they need.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have an important role to play in ensuring the security of our nation, but unfortunately have documented violations of human rights of detained immigrants. A number of national organizations including the ACLUDetention Watch NetworkHuman Rights Watch, and the National Immigrant Justice Center have issued reports highlighting how ICE’s negligence has resulted in a number of deaths among ICE and CBP detainees. According to the National Immigrant Justice Center, nearly 75 people died in ICE custody between 2010 and 2018. The administration has continually asked Congress for more funds to expand the regime of immigrant detention, requesting $2.8 billion for fiscal year 2019 to finance a 30 percent increase in the number of immigrants detained by the federal government each day.

Detention and COVID-19

Detention poses substantial health risks to immigrants amid the SARS-COV2 pandemic. The public health advice to maintain physical distance from others cannot easily be followed in most group housing situations, including detention centers. This makes these facilities ticking time-bombs. Inadequate medical care and suboptimal conditions make it very difficult for the system to responsibly confront an outbreak of COVID-19 in detention facilities. The constant churn and turnover of detention facilities may also facilitate the spread of the disease, as previous detention-based health crises have shown. Detention centers must release as many detainees as possible for the health and safety of all concerned.

The Medical Necessity of Releasing Detainees

Immigrant detention has demonstrable negative impacts on the mental and physical health of detainees. From the moment an immigrant arrives at a facility their quality of life begins an inexorable decline. Detention centers are not designed to provide top-notch mental health care and physical health care to those detained. We have seen inhumane conditions in too many instances due to America’s immigrant detention infrastructure.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that ICE has confirmed 449 COVID-19 positive detainees, with the largest single outbreak occurring at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in southern California. At that facility, nearly 100 detainees have tested positive for COVID. There have also been reports of ICE failing to quarantine symptomatic detainees while they await the results of their COVID screening. Detainees would be much better off physically distancing themselves in their own homes, rather than remaining in a massive group situation at detention facilities.

Detainees are not the only ones put at risk by keeping detention facilities open. The guards and other staff who maintain detention centers also face threats to their health by continuing to show up to work. At the Otay Mesa facility in California 15 detention center employees have tested positive for COVID-19. These employees go back and forth between the detention center and their homes, increasing the chances of spreading the virus to their families and the wider community.

The Importance of Action

Today’s form of immigrant detention is a modern-day innovation, and an unnecessary one at that. A better way is possible. With the exigencies of COVID-19 we must act now to press the administration to change course and release detainees. Join the Episcopal Public Policy Network to stay up-to-date on the latest developments in policy and to act. The stakes in this situation are very high; it is essential that we raise our voices in support of humane treatment of immigrants. We cannot allow the continuation of harmful policies to deter us in the fight against COVID-19.   

Join the Office of Government Relations and Episcopal Migration Ministries on Tuesday, May 19 at 4PM ET for Immigrant Detention during COVID-19: Prophetic Action & Compassionate Response. This seventy-five-minute webinar will include clergy and lay leaders from the Dioceses of Georgia, Ohio, and Western Louisiana with professional and ministry background in different models of detention visitation ministry.

The online presentation will provide viewers with an understanding of our country’s immigration detention system, including reports of inhumane conditions and privately-owned prison facilities; an understanding of the reasons immigrants may be detained and how they may be released; and, a discussion of the current situation in detention facilities during COVID-19.

The webinar will also discuss practical actions that anyone can take to speak out for and respond with compassion to the needs of our siblings in detention. Questions must be emailed before the webinar to

Register at

Rushad Thomas is a policy advisor in The Episcopal Church’s Washington, D.C.-based Office of Government Relations

The Office of Government Relations