After health protocols were established at the beginning of the outbreak of COVID-19, immigrant detained in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), facilities across the United States have been banned from visiting their family and friends for over two years. Immigrants and advocates for them claim that the absence of visits in person is unacceptable and that ICE needs to revert back to its pre-pandemic policies, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the states have relaxed pandemic-related protocols.
“This is borderline inhumane,” Fidel Garcia, a 27-year-old detained at the Golden Gate Annex in the Bay Area, tells TIME. Garcia, who has been held by ICE since August 2010, is currently working with an attorney in the hope of securing his release to be reunited with his daughter. Garcia, who was taken from Mexico by his parents when he turned four years old, will be detained by ICE for eight months.
ICE stopped visiting visitors on March 13, 2020. Advocates claim that many detainees are not allowed to see their spouses or children for up to two years, despite the fact that immigrants often stay in detention for years.
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Freedom for Immigrants is an advocacy organization for ICE detention. It launched a Monday campaign with over 20 other immigrant advocacy groups to ask that ICE reinstate visitation. “I can’t underscore enough how much seeing someone you love through a piece of glass can actually gives you the will to keep going in that type of an environment,” says Layla Razavi, interim co-director of Freedom for Immigrants.
In-person visits were restored by the Federal Bureau of Prisons on a limited scale as soon as October 3, 2020. By the end of 2021, most states had reopened prisons to visitors in some form—some states kept varying COVID-19 restrictions, and in some cases left it up to the discretion of prison wardens to determine visitation rules. Many states have relaxed restrictions on visits to prisons and jail cells since the beginning of 2022.
ICE stands out in refusing to allow its detainees visitations. The policy is based on ongoing public health concerns. “[ICE]Continues to use CDC guidance throughout its Pandemic Response Required (PRR), regularly communicating with senior medical leadership across the federal government on overarching detention health standards,” an ICE spokesperson tells TIME in a statement. “The agency is committed to delivering high-quality, evidence-based medical care, in a dignified and respectful manner, to detained individuals.”
The CDC’s guidance says that in congregate settings, including correctional facilities, the risk of COVID-19 spread is higher. But the guidance also notes that measures, including “restrictions on visitation,” are “known to lead to negative impacts on mental health and well-being.”
ICE extended communication access after the end of in-person visits. “ICE recognizes the considerable impact of suspending personal visitation and has requested wardens and facility administrators maximize detainee use of teleconferencing, video visitation…email, and/or tablets, with extended hours where possible,” the ICE website says.
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Garcia warns that ICE technology can still be costly and glitchy. Communication are also often closely monitored. Even if calls are pre-paid, they can often go down. They’re also no replacement for in-person visits, he says. After traveling eight hours to visit him, his daughter and wife were able to hold hands and converse with him at California county prison. “I took [seeing my family] for granted,” Garcia says. Garcia says that he was able to quickly realize how dependent he was on his family for support during the stressful time of being detained by ICE after he had been suspended from in-person visits.
“Family is all we have in this world,” he says. “That’s all we have to hold on to—that’s all I have to hold on to—and it’s very difficult to be in this environment with that lack of visitation.”
There are many pitfalls in the system. Detainees with legal representation have been allowed to see them face-to-face. Most detainees, however, do not possess lawyers. A person with an ongoing case in Immigration Court is not eligible for an attorney, as they are not charged with any crime. Roughly 80 percent people are in ICE detention and have a case at immigration court This fiscal year, I have not received legal representation.The Transactional Records Access Clearing House is a Syracuse University research organization that provides this information.
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In lieu of a lawyer, immigrants friends are families are often detainees’ only advocates, says Razavi of Freedom for Immigrants. “Oftentimes, it’s that person who loves you and is trekking for hours on a bus to get to you to spend a couple hours with you through a piece of glass, who’s going to go back into the world…and help you fight your case,” she says. ICE’s decision to prevent detainees from seeing family could have the effect of encouraging people to stop fighting their cases and self-deport, she says.
Garcia says he had considered self-deportation but has now decided to be in detention, hoping that his daughter will return. “I can’t give up for one and only reason, which is my daughter,” he says. “It’s very depressing. We have to continue pushing. I keep pushing forward.”
Daniel Lopez, a Florida resident, is preparing for his first visit to Petrona Lopez, his mother since her detention at an ICE center more than two decades ago. A temporary release was granted to her two weeks back, while the court reviews the facts in her immigration case. She is now living in Maryland with another son. Daniel says he’s happy to be able to talk to his mom every day again without interruption. However, the detention of his mother has caused emotional scares. Both of Petrona’s parents died while she was in detention. When Petrona’s mother died on Dec. 30, 2021, it took two days to reach Petrona and give her the news, Daniel says. Her only choice was to feel the pain alone..