Visitation to ICE detention facilities was initially revoked in March 2020, blocking local detention visitation groups’ in-person monitoring of human rights abuses and exacerbating many of the traumatizing effects of immigration detention, including prolonged isolation, severe mental health harms and family separation. Although visitation at federal prisons was restored in October 2020, the Biden administration has effectively maintained the inhumane policy at immigration detention facilities.
African Human Rights Coalition joined Immigrants rights advocates from 140 organizations today to deliver a letter to President Joe Biden demanding his administration fully reinstate social visitation at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities. More than 40 ICE detention facilities currently restrict or block families’ and communities’ access to visitation, despite ICE announcing its plans to reinstate social visitation in May 2022.
Guidance released by ICE following its May announcement ultimately grants ICE field offices and for-profit corporations overly broad discretion to interpret the policy on an ad-hoc basis and to their benefit, according to advocates. Using ICE’s policy, immigration detention facilities with extensive records of abuse can exploit positive COVID-19 cases as a means to effectively block oversight and community members’ in-person monitoring.
Additionally, as many detained immigrants approach three years of isolation, it’s common for family members to travel for many hours across state lines under the impression they can visit with loved ones only to arrive at detention facilities that inform them visitation has just been “shut down.” “My long awaited dream to see my family after my incarceration became a nightmare when they transferred me in shackles to an ICE detention center on November 27, 2021,” said Jose Hernandez, who is currently detained at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield, CA. “When visitation was reinstated, I thought seeing my family would alleviate the horrors of being in detention, but I haven’t been able to see them. My elderly parents can’t drive and they have difficulties finding long distance transportation to visit me, especially when there’s no certainty the facility will let them in. Similarly, my family who lives out of state can’t afford to plan a visit that may or may not occur. I lost my grandmother in 2021 and my aunt earlier this year, and the mental pain and suffering of not being able to hug them one last time has been unbearable. I haven’t had the opportunity to grieve these losses with my family. Like me, others locked up in these facilities have lost loved ones and missed important celebrations without the opportunity to see our families and be with them during these times. The reinstatement of visitation has not changed this harsh reality.”
“ICE has yet to fully and consistently reinstate community visitation across the country, resulting in the blocking of vital human rights monitoring and mass confusion for families who must travel many hours for visits with their loved ones,” said Andrea Carcamo, policy director with Freedom for Immigrants. “Visitation is critical to lessening the pain caused by the inherent isolation and family separation experienced by both those inside detention and their loved ones outside. ICE’s updated guidance—in which a single positive case can be exploited to block visitation for hundreds of people for several weeks—is callous, absurd and completely unhinged from the reality of the world we live in today. While Biden claims the pandemic is over, it’s become painfully clear that the President is excluding immigrants from the recovery. Enough is enough. We demand the full and consistent reinstatement of social visitation.”
“What ICE disguises as the reinstatement of social visitation, is in reality, ICE giving more power to detention facility administrators so they can continue to operate the facilities in secrecy and chaos,” said Laura Duarte Bateman, communications manager with the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice. “As we enter a post-pandemic phase, there is no reason why physical visitation shouldn't be fully accommodated in a uniform manner. We’re gravely concerned ICE’s failure to do this will incentivize the use of visitation as a retaliatory tactic against detained individuals as they speak up for their rights.”
“Doctors call for a policy that fully reinstates visitation rights for immigrants held in detention as a way to reduce harm and improve the well-being of immigrants and their families in the community,” added Lorena Del Pilar Bonilla, MD, with Doctors For Camp Closure.
To alleviate the adverse effects of prolonged isolation, the groups demand the Biden administration create guidelines that immediately and fully reinstate social visitation at all ICE detention facilities, in addition to providing free, unrestricted virtual video visitation.