From the very beginning of the pandemic, detainees at Mesa Verde, a privately-run immigrant detention center in Bakersfield, Calif., have watched the progression of coronavirus with dread. It moved from China to Seattle to New York to San Francisco.
In May, Choung Woong Ahn, 74, died by suicide right after ICE refused three separate requests for medical release. In June, a medical worker at Mesa Verde tested positive for the virus. And just last week, the first detainee tested positive.
“The more I watched, the more I realized how much I was vulnerable to this,” says former detainee Charles Robert Joseph. ”They put a video on the TV and it was how to wash your hands, and while we were watching this video it just dawned on me that we can’t do nothing this video shows.”
One hundred men shared five bars of soap. Faucets had to be held down. There were no paper towels and no bleach products. Staff were not wearing masks and gloves two months into the pandemic.
As Define American’s latest In This Together video shows, detainees and advocates on the outside have been fighting for basic human rights — fighting for their survival — since the pandemic began.
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They staged sit-ins, went on hunger strikes, and released videos to the public. Lawyers fought for them in court, demanding that ICE release detainees with pre-existing health conditions. And sometimes they won: Nearly an entire women’s dorm at Mesa Verde was released in May after a successful hunger strike and public pressure. Charles Robert Joseph, who led some of the protests and is featured in our video, was released.
But ICE has the power to release everyone in detention tomorrow. Immigrant detention is subject to broad discretion. The vast majority of immigrants in detention centers are just being held pending an immigration court date and are not a flight risk. There is nothing stopping the government from sending them home to fight their deportation charges from the safety and social isolation of their own homes.
“They say we are a flight risk. Where are we going to fly to?” Joseph asks. “We’re trying to stay in America with our families. How are we going to fly anywhere? You are trying to fly us out of the country. We’re trying to stay. So how are we a flight risk?”
In This Together
The coronavirus pandemic is both a local and a global crisis. We must consider everyone’s humanity as our flawed response to this pandemic proceeds, and that includes those left out and left behind, such as people mired in deportation proceedings.
Define American has been highlighting stories of individuals, specifically immigrants, coming together for their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. This latest video caps our In This Together series, all of which you can watch and share below.