You turn to us for voices you won't hear anywhere else.

Sign up for Democracy Now!'s Daily Digest to get our latest headlines and stories delivered to your inbox every day.

Former ICE Director: Release Immigrants from Detention or COVID-19 Will Spread Like Wildfire Inside

Media Options

Alarm is growing about the safety of more than 37,000 people held in immigrant detention centers and private jails that contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, where it is nearly impossible for them to avoid close contact to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Nearly half of those detained by ICE are accused of no crime other than civil immigration violations. Immigrants at three jails in New Jersey are now on hunger strikes over unsanitary conditions that put them at high risk during the pandemic.

 We hear from a detained person on hunger strike and speak with John Sandweg, former acting director of ICE during the Obama administration, who is calling for ICE to release thousands from detention, and Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, or CHIRLA, which just led a national effort to stop immigration enforcement actions.

Related Story

StoryDec 21, 2022Human Rights Stain, Public Health Farce: Title 42 Tied to 13,000 Murders, Rapes, Kidnappings in Mexico
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from New York, the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States. As the global death toll from the coronavirus pandemic tops 15,000, with more than 450 deaths here in the U.S., alarm is growing about the safety of more than 37,000 people detained at immigration detention centers and private jails that contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, where it’s nearly impossible to avoid close contact and follow social distancing to stop the spread of the virus. Nearly half of those detained by ICE are accused of no crime other than civil immigration violations. ICE says there are no confirmed cases of coronavirus among detained immigrants at the facilities it runs, but at least one worker has tested positive at the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey who’s a member of the medical staff. Meanwhile, two people held at the Hudson County Correctional Facility in New Jersey have tested positive. Like detention centers, the jail holds people detained for civil immigration offenses and is now on lockdown for two weeks. Immigrants at Hudson and two other New Jersey jails are now on hunger strikes over unsanitary conditions amidst the pandemic.

This is part of a call recorded Friday with a man held in the immigrant detention at Essex County Correctional Facility. He has since been placed in solitary confinement.

DETAINED IMMIGRANT: We need help in here. Like, nobody is helping us. These people are doing what they want to do with us, because they feel like we are immigrants, and we don’t have no help. I do not want to die in here without me seeing my family. This is ridiculous. The people that give us our food is from outside. The COs — it’s cold outside every day — they’re going to catch this virus anytime and give it to us. I do not want to die without my family. It’s like ICE don’t even care. ICE don’t even come to speak to us about nothing. They just don’t care. The correctional officers are telling us all, “It’s ICE. It’s ICE.” It’s no answer. Like, they’re not telling us nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, the group Never Again Action organized a protest with nearly a hundred cars outside the Hudson County Detention Center to demand New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy release people being held there. Never Again also held an in-car protest outside California Governor Gavin Newsom’s home to call for the release of detainees.

NEVER AGAIN ACTION PROTESTER: Governor Newsom, we are once again asking you, we are begging you, to do the right thing, to release all those in ICE detention centers now, before it is too late. Release them now. There is no later.

AMY GOODMAN: More than 3,000 physicians have signed a letter calling for ICE to release people from detention while their legal cases proceed, especially those who are over 60 or have medical conditions that put them at higher risk of dying from COVID-19. There’s also growing concern about the spread of the coronavirus among immigrants detained by Customs and Border Protection at shelters for unaccompanied migrant children that are run by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. The news outlet Documented reports a staff member at Abbott House, a shelter in Irvington, New York, has tested positive for COVID-19 and placed all exposed migrant children held there in quarantine for 14 days. This comes as the Trump administration announced it will shift its enforcement operations to focus on dangerous individuals.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. In Phoenix, Arizona, John Sandweg is with us. He is former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, during the Obama administration. He wrote a piece published Sunday by The Atlantic headlined “I Used to Run ICE. We Need to Release the Nonviolent Detainees: It’s the only way to protect detention facilities and the people in them from COVID-19.” And in Los Angeles, we’re joined by Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in California, or CHIRLA, which just led a national effort to stop immigration enforcement actions.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! John Sandweg, let’s begin with you. You’re generally in Washington, but you’re in Phoenix, Arizona, right now. Talk about what you are calling for.

JOHN SANDWEG: Well, look, the immigration detention centers really are vulnerable to the outbreak of a contagious disease. During my time at ICE and my time at DHS, we had several outbreaks of contagious diseases. The nature of these facilities is such that it’s really impossible to engage in the social distancing that we’re all practicing right now. So, when you look at the population of ICE and who’s in those detention facilities, and you recognize that really only a small percentage pose any public safety threat, when you recognize that their immigration proceedings can continue even if they’re out of custody, and when you look at the thousands of ICE officers, contract guards and employees who have to go to those facilities every day, who frankly are just as much at risk of catching COVID-19 because of their exposure to the facilities themselves, it seems just very commonsensical to me to say, let’s go ahead and downsize the population of the detention centers dramatically, release these individuals. If you pose a threat to public safety, you stay in. Meanwhile, the immigration court proceedings, the deportation proceedings, will continue as planned, and ICE will just monitor you from an out-of-custody perspective. It just seems commonsensical to me at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, to say that there are no cases inside, and on the outside, in the free world in the United States, we really have no idea how many people are positive, because of the massive lack of tests, let alone what’s going on inside these refugee centers, these jails. Are you talking about thousands of people? And where are these detention centers?

JOHN SANDWEG: So, the detention centers are scattered across the United States. And as you kind of alluded to earlier, it’s really a hodgepodge of contract, private prison-run — that’s probably the largest — you know, probably close to the largest holder of ICE detainees are private prison companies that operate massive detention centers under contract with ICE; state and local jails across the country; and then a very small percentage are in actually federally owned facilities. So they’re scattered across the country. Oftentimes they’re mixed with the criminal population. And what’s strange about this is, you’re going to see some of these jails — this is, you know, across the country, courts and sheriff’s offices are looking at their populations, because they recognize the vulnerability in their jails, so they’re letting criminal detainees out. But in some of those very same facilities, the ICE detainees are going to be remain locked up, even though they have not, in many instances, been charged with a criminal offense, much less convicted of one.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, they are being held pending legal action. Talk about who these people are and what power ICE has.

JOHN SANDWEG: Sure. ICE has complete authority to release anyone from immigration detention. They have a significant parole authority, and they can release someone even if they fall under what’s called mandatory detention under the immigration laws. But what you have in immigration detention is a mix. To be fair, there is a population there of people who were convicted of serious crimes, and in some cases violent crimes. We’re not talking about — I’m not talking about releasing those individuals. There are some individuals who pose a genuine public safety threat, that need to be detained. But in immigration, it’s different than the criminal system. We don’t engage in this kind of risk analysis where we look at whether or not you pose a public safety threat or a dramatic flight risk. What we’re looking at is whether or not you fall under certain categories under the immigration law that really aren’t designed to evaluate someone’s risk so much as they are just more almost — I wouldn’t say arbitrary, but almost arbitrary categories, where we say, “You are subject to detention, and you are not.” We’re also probably looking at a lot of immigrants who are eligible to be released pursuant to bail but just couldn’t afford to post the bail. So, unlike the criminal detention system, what you’re really going to see here is a very high percentage of individuals who I don’t think anyone, even some of the harder ICE officers, would look at the case and say, “Yeah, they generally pose a threat to public safety.” These are people who got caught up in the immigration system and, for one reason or another, are detained.

You know, and listen, one thing I want to be very clear about, I think there’s a misconception. People who go through the immigration court process, the actual majority of them are not detained. They’re being monitored by ICE. They might be under ankle bracelets or electric — you know, they have to report on a monthly basis to ICE. So, what we’re talking about is just saying, let’s let the immigration deportation proceedings continue. Nobody gets a free pass. Let’s just get them out of custody, because it makes it a lot safer for them but also makes it a lot safer for the ICE officers who have to go to those facilities every single day.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re talking about how many people here? What? Thirty-seven thousand under ICE jurisdiction?

JOHN SANDWEG: The population fluctuates, of course, but, generally speaking, ICE is operating about 40,000 detention beds right now across the country. I would say about 37,000 are in detention. Now, the administration’s announcement that they’re going to stop arresting and detaining people on the front end, new people, who don’t pose a threat to public safety, is a great start. I have to compliment the administration for that. But it doesn’t really make any sense to do that and limit the flow of new people in, if you don’t also go ahead and discharge the people who don’t pose a threat to public safety who are already in your custody.

AMY GOODMAN: And have you spoken to people in the Trump administration, having been a former head of ICE yourself?

JOHN SANDWEG: Well, I have casual conversations with people at the department, but I have not engaged in any specific conversations about this. I will tell you, though, I know just from experience in dealing with similar outbreaks of infectious diseases — nothing on the scale of this, nothing as high-profile as this, though — but, really, the folks who are also deeply concerned about this are not just the advocacy world or the immigrant rights community, but the officers themselves. These are the folks who have to go home every day to their families, and they have to work inside these facilities. And it’s just as important to them that the facilities be operated in as safe a manner as possible, as it is to the detainees. I’m surprised — and I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear something soon from the ICE officers’ union or other officers themselves who also want to see similar measures taken to protect them.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Angelica Salas into the conversation, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in California, known as CHIRLA. Talk about John Sandweg’s proposal — just release, he’s saying, the overwhelmingly nonviolent detainees who are under ICE custody, because ICE — people who are in civil detention, because ICE has the supreme power simply to make that decision. Can you talk about that, and also what it means to be a person with a violent record? Aren’t these people who have already served time in prison, who are then put into the system, the ICE system, to be deported?

ANGELICA SALAS: Well, I agree wholeheartedly with John that we have to close these centers down. It is absolutely outrageous that everything in America has stopped, and our jails are releasing prisoners, and yet in our immigration detention centers we still have people at risk of dying. It is imperative that these centers be shut down immediately. And I think that, in my perspective, is that we need to release everyone in those detention centers. The Congress has appropriated billions of dollars in order to run these centers. In addition, there’s millions of dollars have been allocated for alternatives to detention, so there are resources to actually allow individuals to be released. And I want to remind everybody, these are mothers, these are fathers, these are human beings, and they should be treated no different than anybody else. So, we’re calling for an immediate shutdown of these detention centers. Individuals need to be released back to their homes. They have families whom they have to be with. So, our perspective is that — and during this time of crisis, once again, the immigrant community is being attacked, whether it’s on the enforcement side or in the detainee side.

And I also want to tell everybody that as we have individuals who are fighting their detention and their deportation, on the other side, there’s also immigration attorneys. And I have to tell you, I’m working with our immigration attorneys, who are saying, “What do we do? We have a horrible choice to make. We have to go into immigration courts to defend people who are in detention, so that they have their due process and they’re not deported from this country.” At the same time, they still have to put themselves out there to represent these detainees, to be able to fulfill justice even in this moment. We have to fully close our immigration courts, and we have to release these detainees and protect everybody involved. So I also want to talk about the immigration attorneys, who are still being heroic during this time, trying to defend immigrants. We just need to understand immigrants are human beings, and they need to be treated with dignity during this time. They need to be afforded what every other human being deserves, which is a chance to live.

AMY GOODMAN: At Sunday’s coronavirus briefing at the White House, a reporter asked President Trump if undocumented immigrants can go to testing sites without fear of then being deported. Vice President Pence said Customs and Border Protection has issued guidance that agents will not target emergency rooms or health clinics in search of undocumented immigrants, barring extraordinary circumstances. But this was Trump’s response.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The answer is, yes, we will do those tests, because I think, in that case, it’s important. I think that if — you could call — you could say “illegal alien.” You could say “illegal immigrant.” You could say whatever you want to use your definition of what you’re talking about. We’re all talking about the same thing. Yes, we will test that person, because I think it’s important that we test that person. And we don’t want to send that person back into wherever we’re going to be sending the person, whether it’s another country or someplace else, because, you know, we’re now bringing them right out of our country. But, yeah, we will test those people.

AMY GOODMAN: “We will test those people.” “It’s important because we’re sending them out of the country.” First I want to ask John Sandweg, and then Angelica Salas: Can you respond to what he just said: “Yes, so that we can deport them”?

JOHN SANDWEG: Well, listen, this is a public health issue, just like the detention centers themselves. I think it’s helpful for people to look at this not only about the health and safety of the undocumented immigrant or the detainee itself, but the public at large. If we have undocumented immigrants in our communities who are scared to go get testing, who might be symptomatic and certainly might be contagious, and they are hesitant to go be tested because of fear that ICE is going to take them into custody, it doesn’t just make that community unsafe, it makes all of us unsafe. So, again, this is a very simple, commonsense proposal, it seems to me, is that ICE needs to issue guidance making it abundantly clear that individuals who go for testing or seek medical treatment are not going to be taken into custody.

Now, the reality is this: ICE has no desire to take these individuals into custody. ICE is just as much scared of a breakout in one of their detention facilities as is the immigrant community. ICE is going to stay away from anybody who’s been diagnosed or tested or suspected of having COVID-19, simply because an outbreak is very difficult for ICE to handle internally and logistically, and exposes the ICE officers at risk themselves. Nevertheless, there’s a fear in the immigrant community about ICE, especially in the Trump administration. And this is something that we did during natural disasters on multiple occasions, hurricanes and otherwise, is put out a statement saying we’re not going to take people into custody who are seeking assistance. Something very similar needs to be done here, not just, again, for the safety of the community itself, but for all of our safety, so that these individuals can be tested and go into quarantine if they are in fact positive for COVID-19.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Angelica Salas, if you could respond, and specifically address children, I mean, who are separated all over this country — we don’t even know the numbers right now — and how they fit into this picture?

ANGELICA SALAS: CHIRLA’s perspective is that immigration enforcement needs to cease immediately. There is no reason that any person going for testing should actually be afraid that immigration will somehow come in contact with them. At this moment what we need to do is safeguard resources for this health crisis.

And so, what we’re asking for, number one, is that all immigrants, independent of their immigration status, have access to testing, that they also have access to the treatment if they are found to have the virus, that they are treated in the same way as any other human being during this moment. I want to let listeners understand that across this country immigrants, undocumented immigrants, don’t have the same access to the resources available to others. So this is a moment in which we say, because we are all interdependent, where we all actually are dependent on other people’s health for our own health, we need to make sure that immigrants have access to all the same level of care. And that also means that we increase resources to community clinics, which in many instances are places where the undocumented go for treatment. That is the first place that they will go. So we need to make sure that we also bolster up resources across this country so that immigrants have the same level of care. There should be no requirement for residency, citizenship status or any other kind of request for information for immigrants; otherwise, they’re not going to go move forward. And I tell you this because we run an immigrant assistance hotline, and we’re receiving these calls of individuals who are calling us just to make sure that they’re able to move forward with testing.

The last thing I also want to say with this is that immigrants are also the ones that are being laid off all over this country, who are losing their jobs, and they don’t have access to unemployment benefits, either. So, whether it’s access to care or access to just some level of economic support, they’re completely left out. And I want to tell America, we are part of this country. Immigrants are part of this country. We are the ones who have taken care of your children, of your elderly, who are putting food on your table right now. And just do not forget us, and make sure that immigrants are included in this moment of great peril for the rest of our — for our entire country.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, John Sandweg, let me ask you — as you see what’s happening on the border, immigrants were afraid of the U.S. government long before Trump. Do you have any regrets about your role, or would you have done anything differently, as director of ICE under the Obama administration? Of course, we know millions of people were deported then. Trump has now taken what President Obama — the foundation he built, and, you know, taken it to a different level. But your thoughts on that?

JOHN SANDWEG: Well, look, we were focused — there’s a role for immigration enforcement in this country. We need to enforce our immigration laws. We need to have border security in this country. The Obama administration’s approach, however, was focused on those who pose a public safety threat and those who just recently compromised our border security, meaning people who just crossed the border. I genuinely believe that is the right approach. Now, it took us a long time to get to where we got to at the end of the administration. I think that there were certain policies that we tried along the way to implement that focused approach, a more laser-like approach, that were maybe a little slow or maybe were not the right policy, and it took us a few iterations to get it right. But we got it right.

So, look, we are the — Immigration and Customs Enforcement plays a valuable role in this country in terms of protecting public safety and enforcing our immigration laws. It’s about how you execute that enforcement mission. At the end of the day, ICE has the resources only to remove or deport a fraction of the undocumented population. That fraction needs to be focused on those who pose a threat to public safety, those who violate our criminal laws, serious criminal laws.

So, no, I don’t have regrets in terms of the policies of the Obama administration or the use of ICE itself. I just think it’s unfortunate today that ICE has become a political tool. It’s unfair to the officers at ICE itself. It gives the agency a terrible reputation, makes it very hard for them to execute their public safety mission. And it’s very unfortunate that immigration enforcement and the agency itself get used as a political pawn here. And it’s unfortunate to the immigrant communities that we’re taking this more arbitrary, randomized approach and wasting our taxpayer resources going after individuals who pose no threat to public safety and probably been here a long time and have U.S. citizen family members. That approach itself is very shortsighted.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Angelica Salas, 30 seconds.

ANGELICA SALAS: I just want to say that we have to act now. People will die if we do not take action. Immigrants need to have the same access to all type of healthcare. This is a moment in which we have to shut down these detention centers. We have to shut down all these centers in which children are being housed. If we are to save lives, we have to not forget the immigrant community.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both so much for being with us, Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in California, and John Sandweg, former acting director of ICE under Obama, now calling for the release of thousands in immigration detention in the United States.

When we come back, we go to emergency room physician, former Baltimore commissioner of health, Dr. Leana Wen. This is Democracy Now! Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: That’s the high school choir of Chino Valley Unified School District in Chino, California, singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” They found a way to remain connected after their school year was officially dismissed until May by joining together via video stream, because their concert was canceled, to sing the song a cappella.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Next story from this daily show

“Hope Is Not a Strategy”: Emergency Doctor Asks, Where Are COVID-19 Tests? Where Is Protective Gear?

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation