CHICAGO -- Is it true that in some detention facilities, immigrants are in cramped quarters -- with little access to fresh food, potable running water or soap -- putting them at high risk for contracting covid-19?
Yes. This has been well documented by immigrant advocacy and watchdog groups who have either witnessed such conditions or been told first-hand by immigrants fearing for their lives.
Is it also possible that hundreds or thousands of miles away from our southern border, there are well-run detention centers in which immigrants have enough room to practice social distancing? And that they have such high-quality care that they're safer in detention than they would be if released?
Sure. In fact, those who are calling for detained immigrants to be released immediately to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus are misguided if health is really their primary concern, according to Andrew Arthur, a former immigration judge and the Center for Immigration Studies' resident fellow in law and policy.
"If we release immigrants into the general population, they're going to interact with people, and we can't control who they interact with," Arthur told a web audience during a recent live-video panel discussion organized by the Center for Immigration Studies. The center is a think tank known to the left as anti-immigrant, but whose tagline these days is "Low-immigration, Pro-immigrant."
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"When they're in detention, we can significantly limit the interactions they have and we can keep them healthier than if they were [on the] outside," Arthur said. "Inside, there are protocols in place to keep them healthy, they have access to medical care 24/7. ... We limit their exposure to disease and maximize their access to medical care."
Some boots-on-the-ground people are also pushing back against releasing immigrants, saying it would be misguided and dangerous.
"A judge ordered 45 detainees released back into our neighborhoods because of fears they would contract the covid virus, but the fact of the matter is that they're safer in prison than anywhere else," said Tom Hodgson, the sheriff of Bristol County, Massachusetts, who also spoke at the panel discussion. "The truth is that we have no covid-19 cases in Bristol County, and we've been dealing with strict protocols since the SARS virus was an issue. All staff members get their temperature taken before entering the facility, we're sanitizing all units at least three times a day, and we have medical staff. We have a negative pressure chamber if detainees experience breathing problems, and we're only at 56% capacity, so we have plenty of room to do proper social distancing."
Hodgson added that 85% of the people released into Bristol County have drug dependency problems and "serious criminal histories."
"What are they going to do?" Hodgson asked rhetorically. "How are they going to survive without a job? How quickly are they going to meander into people's neighborhoods? And if they do contract covid, most of them will have to go to an emergency room, and good luck getting attention in an ER."
Meanwhile, a few days before the panel discussion, I attended a press briefing by a coalition of immigrant advocacy groups that were calling for immigrants to be released from detention centers before disaster strikes.
"Every expert has said that it's critical for [Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)] to release as many immigrants as possible, and instead it continues activities that add to populations and put agents and immigrants and the public at risk," said Ur Jaddou, a former chief counsel for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Clearly, there is a huge difference between people at the border who have not previously been in the country, have no known criminal records and have family who is able and willing to take them in and those who fit the "crimmigrant" mold that immigration hardliners fear.
The problem is that our nation is unable -- or unwilling -- to understand that there is no one kind of unlawfully present immigrant. They're not all DACA scholarship kids or faithful farm hands. They're not all rapists or murderers.
But neither side wants to allow for complex details, because it detracts from a clear message. So I'll underscore what is left unsaid in these dueling press briefings:
No one wants dangerous people with criminal histories out on the streets. No one wants crowds of nonviolent people locked up in situations where they'll eventually fall ill and potentially endanger a surrounding community's health.
And no one should want to continue stalling on important immigration issues because we insist on talking about unlawfully present immigrants as either angels or devils.