Migrants in detention in Texas face COVID-19

By Mirinda Crissman
April 7, 2020

Austin, Texas

Migrants being held in detention in Texas have been facing abhorrent sanitary conditions in the detention facilities long before the coronavirus pandemic began. Now that the virus is here, and threatens to infect such a vulnerable and captive population at higher rates than the general population, many migrants in detention in Texas have begun to resist. Officials in charge of these facilities are more afraid of protest spreading than they are of the deadly virus.

On Feb. 24, “a group of [more than 40] Cameroonian women held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the T. Don Hutto Residential Facility, a women’s center in Texas run by private prison company CoreCivic, staged a sit-in in front of the facility’s clinic to protest their prolonged detention and lack of medical care.” Since the sit-in, more than 160 Cameroonian women have been scattered and transferred to other facilities across the state. (The Intercept, March 30)

6 of the 8 women prisoners who fled a Clovid-19 infected cell block in South Dakota are Native.

Migrants in various South Texas detention centers have been denied parole as a result of a new federal “transit bar” policy, which says migrants cannot access asylum if they did not first try to seek it in any of the countries they passed through on their way to the U.S.

This “transit bar” forces many affected to seek lesser forms of protection. It has led to the logic that since they are no longer asylum seekers, the migrants are not eligible for humanitarian release in the face of a crisis. Immigration lawyers have argued that these blanket denials of parole are illegal, but the courts are moving too slowly to protect migrants in grave danger.

On March 20, about 60 detainees at an ICE South Texas Processing Center in Pearsall took part in a work strike. Many of the striking detainees work as janitors or cafeteria personnel. They cited overcrowding, lack of sanitation equipment and fear of infection — in a system that does not screen anyone coming into the facility for the virus — as the catalyst for protest.

Staff ordered the strikers to return to their beds. When they refused, nine protesters were pepper sprayed. ICE officials denied that the strike took place at first, but later confirmed a disturbance. (Texas Tribune, March 25)

Many migrants have begun trying to opt for voluntary deportation to escape crisis conditions that were already abysmal under the Obama administration. It is a death sentence to keep them caged, whether in detention facilities or in packed migrant camps along borders.

The physical facilities had already been highly criticized for overcrowding, lack of sanitary conditions, sexual misconduct, and other abuses of power coming from staff. These conditions, in the time of global pandemic, are setting the stage for mass killings.

Clearly, stopping the spread of uprisings is a higher priority to those in power than it is to stop the spread of the coronavirus among a large population the United States has deemed a racial other. These brave migrants, who have begun to fight back, already recognize the power they possess by acting in unison. We must tear down the walls and free them all.