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Caring for detained immigrants

Compassion | The United States responds to COVID-19 outbreaks in holding centers
by Charissa Koh
Posted 4/22/20, 04:14 pm

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested Salomon Diego Alonzo in August 2019 along with nearly 700 other migrant workers at food processing plants in Mississippi. Immigration authorities sent the 26-year-old Guatemalan, who had lived illegally in the United States since 2012, to a detention center in Monroe, La., where he stayed in a shared dormitory.

On Thursday, Alonzo had a court hearing by phone, but a guard told the judge he did “not have the lung capacity” to participate because he was sick with COVID-19. At the end of the two-hour proceeding, the judge agreed to delay his final asylum hearing, said Alonzo’s attorney, Veronica Semino. He was admitted into a hospital later that day.

Across the United States, many prisons are releasing nonviolent offenders to community-based supervision to keep the coronavirus from inundating the inmate population. So far, ICE has released 700 of its 32,000 detainees. Data shows 253 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among detainees at 28 facilities—27 of those are at the Richwood Correctional Center, where Alonzo was held.

Immigrant detention centers struggle with the same difficulties controlling the spread of disease as jails and other communal dwelling places. As illegal immigration across the U.S. southern border increased in recent years, detention centers have become overcrowded. President Donald Trump has emphasized the importance of arresting and detaining illegal immigrants to ensure they attend court hearings and deter others from entering illegally. Advocates for the immigrants argue that most of them show up for their hearings and that ankle monitors, check-ins with caseworkers, and bonds effectively and inexpensively work as well as detention in getting offenders to court.

Once COVID-19 hit, ICE adjusted some of its enforcement efforts to minimize the number of new detainees entering the system. In a letter dated March 13, leaders with the Evangelical Immigration Table urged acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf to release nonviolent immigrant detainees. “Our concern is rooted in our Christian belief that each human life is made in the image of God and thus precious,” they wrote.

Immigration lawyers began suing to get their clients, especially those particularly vulnerable to the disease, out of detention. In March, a U.S. District Court judge in New York City ordered the release of 10 at-risk immigrants. In mid-April, ICE announced it had evaluated “immigration history, criminal record, potential threat to public safety, flight risk, and national security concerns” and released nearly 700 detainees.

Julio Colcas, a 55-year-old Peruvian immigrant, was allowed to leave the Essex County Correctional Facility in New Jersey with an ankle monitor. “When I left, everyone was clapping,” he told NPR. “By me leaving, it gives them hope it could happen to them, too.”

ICE said it is following its pandemic plan and complying with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but some detainees report they do not have access to masks and testing. In California, immigrants started a hunger strike, demanding that ICE stop adding new detainees, make staff members wear gloves and masks, and provide hygiene supplies and COVID-19 testing.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal in Riverside, Calif., ordered the agency to review the cases of more detained immigrants vulnerable to the virus and consider releasing them.

“At this stage of the pandemic, the threat is even clearer,” Bernal wrote. “The number of immigration detainees testing positive for COVID-19 continues to increase at an alarming rate.”

Associated Press/Photo by Mark Tenally (file) Associated Press/Photo by Mark Tenally (file) The U.S. Supreme Court

All or nothing

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday overturned the murder conviction of a Louisiana man in a ruling that makes verdict requirements consistent in all 50 states.

Evangelisto Ramos was serving a life sentence in Louisiana after 10 out of 12 jurors decided in 2016 to convict him of killing a woman. At the time, Louisiana and Oregon were the only states that allowed a conviction with a minimum of 10 guilty votes instead of a unanimous decision. Louisiana recently changed its rule, but Oregon’s still stood until this week.

The Supreme Court found that the practice violated the right to a trial by a jury of peers found in the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Writing for the majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch said the high court was wrong to uphold the practice in 1972. “Courts in both Louisiana and Oregon have frankly acknowledged that race was a motivating factor in the adoption of their states’ respective nonunanimity rules,” he wrote.

The ruling will apply to defendants who are still appealing their convictions. Those who already had a final appeal will need to go through another round of lawsuits.

The ruling pulled together an odd consensus of justices: liberals Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor and conservatives Brett Kavanaugh, Clarence Thomas, and Gorsuch voted in favor of overturning the conviction. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, both conservatives, and liberal Justice Elena Kagan dissented over concerns about the issue of precedent.

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a WORLD News Group board member, said the United States’ high standard for criminal conviction transcends the liberal-conservative divide.

“Deeply embedded in the Christian Biblical worldview is the understanding that there must be adequate evidence in order to convict someone of a crime and take action against that person on behalf of society,” he said on his podcast The Briefing.

“This goes all the way back to the Scripture,” Mohler added, noting Old Testament law and its evidentiary standard. —Rachel Lynn Aldrich

Associated Press/Photo by Charlie Neibergall (file) Associated Press/Photo by Charlie Neibergall (file) A pork farmer in Clear Lake, Iowa

Food aid

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is working to shore up the nation’s food supply chain against the coronavirus pandemic, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced Friday.

The program includes $16 billion in direct payments to agricultural producers who suffered losses when the pandemic sapped demand and caused sudden saturation of the market with food products. While the idea that there is an oversupply of food may seem strange to the average shopper who faced empty grocery store shelves in March and April, many farmers are suffering from the widespread closures of restaurants. The pork industry alone has lost an estimated $5 billion, and many farmers don’t know what to do with their extra pigs.

The USDA program also includes a $3 billion buyback in partnership with distributors. The distributors donate the purchased produce, dairy, and meat to food banks, community and religious organizations, and nonprofit groups to support families suffering economically from the shutdown.

Some of the funding for the $19 billion relief program is coming from the economic relief package passed by Congress. —R.L.A.

Juvenile outbreak

At least 25 youth residents have tested positive for COVID-19 at a juvenile detention center in Virginia, the state authorities said on Friday.

Officials said on April 2 that two staff members at the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center near Richmond had confirmed cases of the disease but had limited contact with the detainees, who are between 14 and 20 years old. The first resident tested positive a day later. Chris Moon, the chief physician at the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice, said the facility quickly isolated residents who tested positive.

Bon Air accounts for about a quarter of cases reported at youth detention centers nationwide. A total of 101 youth detainees across the country have tested positive for the disease, according to The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit criminal justice research and advocacy group based in Washington. —R.L.A.

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Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and prison reform, including profiling ministries in the annual Hope Awards for Effective Compassion competition. She is also a part of WORLD's investigative unit, the Caleb Team. Charissa resides with her husband, Josh, in Austin, Texas. Follow her on Twitter @CharissaKoh.

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    Posted: Thu, 04/23/2020 05:03 pm

    Re: Juv. outbreatk

    I hope they make staff wear masks. Staff should be tested each time they return to work.