By the time the coronavirus pandemic reached a crisis level in the United States in March, José Velásquez had already spent almost 900 days in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention. A Guatemalan asylum seeker, Velásquez had celebrated his 18th and 19th birthdays behind bars, and, as the pandemic worsened, he worried about making it to his 20th. Over the course of two years in the notorious Adelanto detention center in California, the teenager had developed serious hypertension, a condition that put him at high risk of dying if he caught COVID-19. Fearing for his safety in the cramped conditions of the detention center, his attorneys requested ICE consider paroling him in light of the pandemic. (Velásquez had never been accused of a crime and had legally asked for asylum.) ICE refused, even as prisons and jails across the state released prisoners to prevent outbreaks behind bars.
“They’re basically sentencing people to death sentences for breaking immigration laws,” said Lindsay Toczylowski, the executive director of Immigrant Defenders Law Center (also known as ImmDef), a California-based asylum organization. Toczylowski has been representing Velásquez as an asylum attorney for two years.
As the pandemic has entrenched itself across the United States, a powerful movement has risen to free people in ICE detention. Rallying around the motto “#FreeThemAll,” organizations like ImmDef, the American Civil Liberties Union and RAICES have joined with other movements to free people from criminal imprisonment as well immigration detention centers. Across the country, activists have surrounded ICE detention centers in cars and held virtual rallies online — but some of the most robust organizing has taken place inside detention centers themselves. Inside immigration jails, people have organized hunger strikes and work stoppages.
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“We’re raising our voices and demanding our rights,” said Maria*, a Guatemalan asylum seeker detained in Adelanto, who says she joined a short hunger strike in April. “We do not deserve to be treated like animals.”
The #FreeThemAll movement has won major victories. As hundreds of doctors and public health officials warned of the dangers of detention, ICE released over 700 medically vulnerable people. But even as the agency ardently resisted additional releases, attorneys across the country have freed hundreds of other people.
In California, Toczylowski and ImmDef took ICE to federal court to demand the release of José Velásquez and four other medically vulnerable people in Adelanto. On April 3, the Ninth Circuit Appeals Court demanded ICE release the plaintiffs in the case, citing the high risk of COVID-19 in the ICE’s detention centers. After almost three years in detention, Velásquez was free.
“It feels so good to be free,” Velásquez told Truthout on a phone call from a motel in southern California. “In there, I felt stressed and scared.”
They’re basically sentencing people to death sentences for breaking immigration laws.
When she read Velásquez’s release forms, Toczylowski says she noted a bit of irony: ICE had written it was a “humanitarian release,” even though the agency has resisted every step of the way.
To date, attorneys like Toczylowski have freed 324 people using the power of the courts. ICE has fought the releases. On its website, the agency has kept a running list of the “criminal charges” that exist for people who judges have ordered released, in an attempt to play up the supposed public safety risks of releasing detained people. Advocates have responded by affirming that all people in ICE detention are there for civil, not criminal charges — ICE has no authority to enforce public safety, only immigration laws.
Even with hundreds of people freed, people in ICE detention say they still feel incredibly vulnerable. At least 1,163 people have tested positive for COVID-19, according to ICE’s official count. Public health experts have warned that the cramped conditions of detention centers make it impossible to social distance, and medical care — including COVID-19 tests — is hard to come by. On May 6, Carlos Escobar-Mejia became the first publicly announced person to die of COVID-19 after catching the virus in ICE’s Otay Mesa detention center.
At least 149 people have tested positive for the virus in Otay Mesa, making it ICE’s number one hot spot. One the same day Escobar-Mejia died, Alberto, a Salvadoran asylum seeker who asked to be identified by a pseudonym for fear of retribution, said that he and 12 other men in his unit were hunger striking. Alberto said that even though he knew organizations had won demands, only one man had been released from his unit.
“We are still fighting for our lives,” he said.
Despite their fear, people in ICE detention have shared their sentiment of being part of a bigger movement, both inside and outside ICE detention. In April, José Miranda-Gonzalez, a 22-year-old who was then detained in the Folkston ICE Processing Center in rural Georgia, said that the work of people fighting for those in ICE detention had inspired him not to give up.
“I just want to say to the people out there supporting us, we know you’re doing everything possible, and we’re doing everything possible here on the inside too,” Miranda said. “I want you all to know we appreciate you, we appreciate you being in this movement, we appreciate your voices. We’re all getting together, and eventually they’ll have to hear us. We’re grateful to the ones who care about us.”
While hundreds have been freed, the #FreeThemAll is often in a race against time, as ICE has continued to deport people out the country. In Miranda-Gonzalez’s case, help did not arrive in time. He did not secure a lawyer, and, in early May, he was deported to Mexico, after spending over two decades of his life in the U.S.
Today, the #FreeThemAll movement continues. “We’re continuing our hunger strike; we’re united,” Alberto said from the Otay Mesa detention center.
*Maria requested a pseudonym to protect her from retaliation.