Amid Pandemic, Migrants Face Impossible Choices

WASHINTON, D.C. — A new Trump administration policy is reportedly forcing migrant parents to choose between family separation and indefinite detention in crowded facilities, adding to a growing list of troubling immigration policies amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under a policy previously known as “binary choice,” which was reportedly implemented last week, migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border are given the choice of being separated from their children or detained indefinitely in U.S. custody.

“COVID-19 cannot be locked up,” said Ali Noorani, President and CEO of the National Immigration Forum. “The Trump administration is offering an inhumane and mean-spirited choice: Separate your family or increase the likelihood that your family is exposed to COVID-19. It’s immoral and it’s bad policy.

“The president must act quickly and decisively to implement alternatives to detention (ATDs), release non-violent immigrant detainees, end ‘binary choice’ and prioritize the safety of unaccompanied children. Doing so is imperative to keeping all of us safer.”

In addition to the harms of separating families, which were evident following the administration’s 2018 “zero tolerance” policy, efforts to channel families into long-term family detention pose significant concerns at a time when COVID-19 is spreading rapidly in immigration detention facilities.

As of this week, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has confirmed 1,163 cases of COVID-19 among the 2,328 detainees tested — a rate of positives far exceeding the national average.

Additionally, 155 ICE employees have tested positive, a number that excludes outside contractors working in privately-owned facilities, as well as state and local corrections officers in state-run facilities holding immigrant detainees. In April, the Government Accountability Project predicted that within 90 days, between 72% and nearly 100% of people in ICE custody would be infected.

With roughly a third of immigrants in detention housed at facilities with limited access to hospitals, outbreaks have the potential to overwhelm local health care systems and lead to unnecessary deaths, leading experts to call for the use of alternatives to detention.

At the same time, the Trump administration has begun swiftly deporting hundreds of unaccompanied minors without notifying their families or giving them the opportunity to apply for asylum since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Noorani continued, “It’s not only migrant families whose health is at risk — it’s detention facilities’ staff, their families and their entire communities who are put it harm’s way by this unnecessary detention. There is absolutely no reason to lock up families when viable alternatives exist — alternatives that have proven extremely effective in both compliance rates and costs.

“These types of facilities, where sanitation access is inadequate and social distancing is impossible — and a mere 8% of detainees have been tested — are a ticking time bomb for devastating outbreaks.

“Forcing parents to make the agonizing choice between being separated from their children or exposing their family to such a health risk is unnecessary and unconscionable, and sending unaccompanied children back to violence or instability is not a solution.

“These responses to the pandemic are not the way the U.S. should be treating human beings.”

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