America just celebrated Independence Day a few weeks ago, but not all people in America are free. Recent events involving the detainment of children in immigrant detention centers have made us question what freedom- or the lack thereof- currently looks like in America. 

Some people who live in this country are experiencing oppression due to the systemic racism and inequitable policies that hinder their socioeconomic advancement, and others experience captivity quite literally. In other words, some residents and undocumented immigrants are literally locked up and detained in detention centers. These folks are not free.

There are numerous immigrant detention centers run by the United States’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) across the country, which hold not only adult detainees but also children ranging from ages 1-17 years-old. However, thanks to a judge ruling on June 26 of this year, some of these family detention centers will be required to release the children due to their increased susceptibility the COVID-19 pandemic. These facilities are particularly confined, making the potential for spread inevitable. 

The ruling by Judge Dolly M Gee of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California applies to two detention centers in Texas and one in Pennsylvania, where a total of about 130 children were still being held there in early June. Some of these children had been held there for over 20 days and are the ones who are being prioritized for release. According to her order, the children must be released either with their parents or to sponsors including available COVID-free non-congregate settings with the consent of their parents or guardians. Judge Gee also states, “The family residential centers are on fire and there is no more time for half measures.”

Judge Gee states, “The family residential centers are on fire and there is no more time for half measures.”

She’s right, and frankly, there is no more time for these inhumane conditions at all. The holding of young children in detention centers has caused widespread outrage and protest from many American people even before the pandemic hit. While this is already an extremely oppressive protocol used by ICE, the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbates the abuse. These detention centers are extremely vulnerable places for the virus to spread. In fact, there have been various cases of coronavirus outbreaks among detainees of these centers, with both parents and children testing positive for the virus. 

In early June, I.C.E. transferred 74 people to Farmville Detention Center in Virginia in an alleged attempt to promote social distancing. The detainees were transferred from detention centers in Arizona and Florida, where cases of COVID-19 have been on the rise. Recent center-wide testing revealed that more than  70% of people at the detention center are positive with COVID-19.  Detainees at this detention center are so concerned for their lives that they are asking authorities to arrange a way for them to see their families because they feel like they will die in these detention centers. They are not only being treated poorly in terms of essential care, but also medical care, especially when it comes to coronavirus in which the care is nearly nonexistent.

Conditions in these detention centers can be compared to prisons, with overcrowding and almost no way to follow social-distancing protocols. Poor conditions in detention centers vary, but most include having to share common spaces with many people such as bunks, showers, phones, and medical facilities. Thus, the detention centers are easy hot spots while the immigrant populations who are held in these centers are increasingly vulnerable to the spread of the virus. Not to mention that because of their immigrant status, much of this goes unnoticed and uncared for. In a facility located in Arizona holding hundreds of immigrants, there has been a 400 percent increase in the number of cases.

I.C.E’s immigrant detention centers are continually used to hold immigrants who are facing deportation and investigation. Often, the parents who are detained also have their children held with them. The Trump Administration has been actively trying to reverse protections for migrant children and families, specifically the rule that they are not to be detained for longer than 20 days, proposing instead that they be held indefinitely. 

This administration has a history of trying to take away protections and dignity from vulnerable populations. 

Legally, the administration must continue to comply with regulations from the 1997 Flores agreement and ensure proper protections and conditions for migrant children. Young children who arrive at the border are often innocent and don’t know any better, and sometimes may even get separated from their parents while at these centers if their parents get deported. Now, people are calling out I.C.E. for not complying and holding children for more than 20 days in awful conditions.

In fact, people have been so outraged that thousands have even taken to protesting in cities across the country. Crowds gathered in outcry, demanding the abolition of I.C.E., the closing of the detention centers over the unjust treatment of immigrant families and children, and against I.C.E. raids in efforts to detain immigrants. Even detainees themselves have tried to protest against the conditions they are being held under, but have been met with violence from the guards and even getting pepper-sprayed in some instances. 

With conditions in these detention centers only getting worse, it is a crucial time to release children from these centers. By July 17th, families must make the vital decision to release their children or stay in detention with them. Many families are uncertain about the conditions to which their children may be released, but others worry that they may miss their only chance at letting their kids be free. Many folks are still fighting for families to not be separated by I.C.E.

Now that I.C.E. has a court order to release children by July 17th, they are currently reviewing the order and deciding what the next steps should be. At the end of the day, there are still children in cages whose livelihood is at stake. With I.C.E.’s track record of unjust and violent treatment of children, we have to continue to monitor this situation.

  • Sharon Quituisaca

    Sharon Quituisaca is a public service leader, change-maker, intersectional feminist, and social justice warrior with degrees in Sociology and Policy Studies. As a first-generation Latina from the Bronx, NY, she is committed to advocating for womxn, inner-city youth, and the environment, while inspiring younger generations through mentorship.