Statement for the Record: Incarceration and Detenti on of Asylum Seekers During COVID-19

Statement for the Record

Yael Schacher, Senior U.S. Advocate

Refugees International

Senate Judiciary Committee

“Examining Best Practices for Incarceration and Detention During COVID-19”

June 2, 2020

Thank for you for the opportunity to submit a written statement for this important hearing. 

Refugees International (RI) is a non-governmental organization that advocates for lifesaving assistance and protection for forcibly displaced people. We conduct fact-finding missions all over the world and do not accept government or United Nations funding, which helps ensure the independence of our reports. For the past three months, RI has focused its attention on addressing the threat COVID-19 poses for displaced populations. Refugees International is concerned with the detention, deportation, and expulsion of asylum seekers during the pandemic.

As such, RI is raising three concerns regarding U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policy at this time.

First, Refugees International is disturbed that 4,500 asylum seekers who have passed their credible fear hearings are being held in crowded conditions in ICE detention centers where limited testing has shown a positive rate of 50 percent for COVID-19 among detainees. The release of many of these asylum seekers is authorized under ICE’s parole directive. However, ICE does not abide by this directive, as federal courts have found. ICE is not only failing to release medically vulnerable asylum seekers from its family detention centers, but it has asked parents there to choose between remaining detained with their children in the middle of a pandemic or separating from them. In Texas, ICE denied parole to a diabetic Ugandan pastor who was tortured in his homeland and has been detained at the Port Isabel detention center since he asked for asylum at a port of entry a year and a half ago. Many detained asylum seekers have family, faith, and other community ties who could house them safely. Alternatives to detention that include case management and legal representation would help ensure that released asylum seekers appear for future immigration court hearings.

Second, Refugees International is disturbed that, since the Center for Disease Control authorized the Department of Homeland Security to expel people under Title 42 authority on March 20th, ICE has removed asylum seekers without first screening them regarding their fear of persecution as required by law. This policy puts the lives of asylum seekers at risk by returning them to the violence that they initially fled.

Third, ICE is not currently testing all detainees for COVID-19 before it transfers or deports them. Moreover, deportees that ICE claims have tested negative for COVID-19 have tested positive upon arrival in Guatemala. Through deportation flights, the United States has effectively exported COVID-19 to countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador, and Haiti whose health systems will be devastated by it.

Refugees International urges ICE to take immediate action to:

  • implement alternatives to detention such as family case management;
  • allow people who enter at the southern U.S. border to request asylum and be properly screened;
  • suspend deportations until effective and comprehensive COVID-19 testing is implemented and no sick people are deported.