Hello again, I hope that you’re well—and that if you’re not, that you’re recovering quickly. I’m OK: just another week of wearing a stupid Billy-the-Kid bandanna over my face, paying $7/roll for a six-pack of "institutional" toilet paper, and giving myself what I can only describe as an "institutional" haircut.
What has me most worried right now is the United States’ big network of immigration detention centers. ICE continues to lock up more than 32,000 people around the country at facilities almost entirely run by for-profit corporations. Over 5,500 are asylum seekers. More than 14,000 have zero criminal record, and most of the rest didn’t commit violent crimes. The vast majority have got family members or other sponsors with whom they could stay to socially isolate.
Instead, they’re sleeping in dormitories with close-together bunk beds. Eating in the same commissaries and sharing the same common areas (or, now, being locked up nearly all day). We keep hearing nightmare stories: detainees forced to buy their own soap, no sanitizer, floors being mopped only with water, women being threatened with pepper spray when they refuse to sign release forms in order to get masks. Many are reportedly on hunger strikes.
ICE claims that 124 detainees and 30 employees have the coronavirus, but they’ve only tested about 400 people. On Thursday Guatemala, which had only documented 214 cases of coronavirus infection, claimed that 44 people deported from these detention centers in a single day—last Monday— had tested positive. When the CDC sent a team to verify 12 of them, all 12 tested positive.
ICE has broad discretion to release detainees. But it has only released about 700. The directors of ICE and CBP basically told congressional committee chairpeople, in a briefing on Friday, to forget about more releases. Some of this refusal comes from their own fealty to an extreme, no-exceptions anti-immigrant agenda. Some of it is knowing what will happen to them if they deviate from the Stephen Miller-White House insistence on an extreme, no-exceptions anti-immigrant agenda. Unbelievably, when the acting director of ICE decided to pause filling up the detention centers with non-criminal aliens during the pandemic, he came under heavy fire from “Trumpworld.”
People are going to die. It is going to be bad. And it’s totally preventable: alternatives to detention programs have good records of keeping people on the outside from slipping through the cracks.
WOLA and other organizations are making a lot of noise. Members of Congress—though no Republicans I’m aware of—are making a lot of noise too. But the top levels at ICE, DHS, and the White House are immovable.
I can’t stop wondering what’s going through the minds of the people directly managing these detention centers right now. Most of them are employees of private corporations like CoreCivic and Geo Group. They’ve got to know what’s about to happen. Many of them were raised to value human life—in their churches, in their upbringings, in their educations.
What are they doing now? If detention centers get hit by a wave of COVID-19 deaths, what will the record show that they were doing—right now, this week—to prevent it? Are they frantically making phone calls, sending e-mails, leaking to reporters, making their CEOs and boards miserable, contacting their local mayors, governors, and congressional representatives?
So much at this late moment depends on them. It horrifies me to think that many of them right now might just be letting it happen.
COVID-19 Reveals the Full Trump Immigration Agenda, and Puts Lives Directly at Risk
The detention centers are just one of four COVID-19 hotspots that the Trump administration's unyielding policies are creating. The others are:
- The deportation flights still running infected, or potentially infected, people to Central America, Haiti, and elsewhere.
- Mexican border cities where crowded shelters, tent encampments, and substandard housing are full of people living at close quarters because of "metering," "Remain in Mexico," and now because of the new (and probably illegal) policy of 90-minute expulsions of everyone without documents, regardless of their need for asylum.
- Desert towns, mainly in Arizona and New Mexico, where border wall construction is still ongoing. Contractors are bringing in itinerant workers who stay for a few days, working and living side-by-side, go and spend a few days off in their home communities, then return. It's insane.
Here's a piece about all of this in English and Spanish at Brújula Ciudadana (Citizen Compass), a publication of Mexico's Iniciativa Ciudadana think-tank.
Last week's podcasts
I posted three more interviews last week to WOLA's Podcast. That makes 16 interview podcasts in a month — the whole archive is here. It's been a great experience talking to so many smart and committed people.
However, I'm running behind on some other work, and will be taking several days off from the podcasting business. I hope to restart again by Friday.
Here are the last three:
- With Colombia expert Abbey Steele of the University of Amsterdam. (As she reminds listeners, Abbey was my intern at the Center for International Policy back in the fall of 2000, that terrible autumn of "hanging chads.")
- With Aaron Reichlin-Melnick at the American Immigration Council, who I asked to give a border-to-court explanation of how the asylum process is supposed to work, and how the Trump administration has destroyed it without changing a word of existing law.
- With Annie Shiel and Mike Lettieri of the Center for Civilians in Conflict, talking about their work to reduce harm to civilians in armed conflicts, and how they’re thinking about adapting their work for Latin America, a region with a lot of violence but few formal armed conflicts.
5 links from the past week
- Why does Venezuela’s military remain so loyal to the Maduro regime? Some give credit to a Cuban-managed counter-intelligence capability that sniffs out dissident officers. The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a network of investigative journalists, finds another explanation: a cache of internal military documents shows how top commanders benefit from massive corruption. State contracts get channeled through private corporations connected to generals. The report profiles 35 of the generals.
- The International Crisis Group published a very current situation report on conditions along the Colombia-Venezuela border, where the effects of coronavirus are just starting to be felt.
- At La Silla Vacía Kyle Johnson, who works for the Kroc Institute’s Colombia team but does a lot of independent writing, recounts a recent visit to rural Tumaco, Nariño, where he meets with the head of a FARC dissident faction, which splintered last November from a dissident faction whose founder was killed in late 2018. The story portrays life in an ungoverned zone along what may be Colombia’s busiest cocaine route, where narcotraffickers have undisputed authority.
- At The El Paso Times, Lauren Villagrán visits Tapachula, Chiapas, near Mexico’s busiest border crossing with Guatemala. There, she talks to Haitian migrants who are adjusting to the idea of settling in Mexico rather than the United States. A common destination is Mexicali, a city bordering southeast California with a growing Haitian population.
- El Salvador President Nayib Bukele has responded to coronavirus by dramatically curtailing civil liberties, even ignoring unanimous Constitutional Court rulings striking down his edicts. Bukele has ordered Salvadorans to open their homes to warrantless security-force raids. El Faro alarmingly documents soldiers carrying out such raids in a slum on San Salvador’s outskirts.
Latin America-related online events this week
Monday, April 20
- 2:00–3:30 at cato.org: Economic Sanctions during a Pandemic (RSVP required).
Tuesday, April 21
- 1:00–2:30 at forumarmstrade.org: Gun Violence in Mexico and Central America: Facing the Challenges and the Path to Solutions (RSVP required).
Wednesday, April 22
- 1:00–2:00 at wola.org: Human Rights in Bolsonaro’s Brazil: The fight for the rights of Brazilian ethnic and minority groups during COVID-19 (RSVP required).
- 4:00–5:00 at wilsoncenter.org: Immigration and the US-Mexico Border during the Pandemic: A Conversation with Members of Congress (RSVP required).
Some tweets that made me laugh this week
And one for me because it's a true story
Let's have a good week.