People detained in ICE facilities have not seen their loved ones in two years

Immigrants detained at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities across the country have been barred from seeing their friends and family in person for more than two years after health protocols were put in place when the spread of COVID-19 began in The United states. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and states relax pandemic-related protocols, immigrants and their advocates say the lack of in-person visits is cruel and that ICE should restore its pre-pandemic policies.

“It’s borderline inhuman,” Fidel Garcia, a 27-year-old being held in the Bay Area’s Golden Gate Annex, told TIME. Garcia has been held by ICE for eight months and is working with a lawyer to try to secure his release so he can see his 7-year-old daughter again. If a court rules against him, Garcia will be taken back to Mexico, a country his parents took him from when he was 4 years old.
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ICE suspended visits on March 13, 2020. Because immigrants can often spend years in detention, advocates believe a significant number of detainees have spent the entire two years without seeing their children, spouses or other loved ones.

Continue reading: The Supreme Court could decide whether thousands of immigrants remain in detention indefinitely

Freedom for Immigrants, an organization working to end ICE’s detention, along with more than 20 immigrant advocacy groups, launched a campaign Monday to demand that ICE reintroduce the visit. “I can’t stress enough how much it can actually give you a will to keep going in an environment like this, seeing someone you love through a piece of glass,” says Layla Razavi, interim co-director of Freedom for immigrants.

By comparison, the Federal Bureau of Prisons began restoring limited in-person visits as early as October 3, 2020. By the end of 2021, most states had reopened prisons to visitors in some form – some states continued to vary COVID-19 restrictions and, in some cases, left prison wardens discretion to set visitation rules. Since early 2022, several states have further eased restrictions on in-person visits by those incarcerated or incarcerated.

ICE is an outlier in continuing to deny any visits to its inmates. It cites ongoing public health concerns for its policies. “[ICE] continues to apply the CDC guidelines through its Pandemic response requirements (PRR) and communicates regularly with senior medical leadership throughout the federal government on overarching incarceration health standards,” an ICE spokesman told TIME in a statement. “The agency strives to provide quality, evidence-based medical care to those incarcerated in a dignified and respectful manner.”

CDC guidance states that the risk of spreading COVID-19 is higher in community settings, including correctional facilities. However, the guidance also notes that measures, including “visit restrictions”, “are known to result in negative impacts on mental health and well-being”.

Since the in-person visit ended, ICE has expanded access to some other forms of communication. “ICE recognizes the significant impact of the suspension of in-person visitation and has asked wardens and facility administrators to maximize inmate use of conference calls, video visits … email and/or tablets, with extended hours where possible,” the statement said ICE website.

Continue reading: Watch: This short documentary offers a rare, powerful look at immigration detention

Still, Garcia says, the technology provided by ICE can be flawed and costly, and communications are often monitored. Calls often drop, even when paid for in advance, he says. They are also not a substitute for personal visits, he says. While incarcerated in the California County Jail, he was able to hug, talk and walk with his wife and daughter after they traveled eight hours to see him. “I took [seeing my family] of course,” says Garcia. When ICE suspended in-person visits, he quickly realized how much he relied on his family’s daily support to cope with the stress of incarceration.

“Family is all we have in this world,” he says. “That’s all we have to hold on to – that’s all I have to hold on to – and it’s very difficult to be in this environment with this lack of visits.”

The system is not without congruences. Inmates with lawyers were allowed to meet her in person. But most inmates don’t have lawyers. Unlike people charged with a crime, people with pending immigration cases are not entitled to an attorney. Rough 80 percent of people in ICE detention with an immigration court case have not yet been represented by a lawyer in this financial yearaccording to the Transactional Records Access Clearing House, a research organization at Syracuse University.

Read more: A record-breaking 1.6 million people are now in default by US immigration courts

Instead of a lawyer, immigrant friends are often the detainees’ only advocates, says Razavi of Freedom for Immigrants. “Often it’s that person who loves you and drives the bus to your place for hours to spend a few hours with you through a piece of glass that goes back into the world … and helps you fight your case,” she ICE’s decision to ban detainees from visiting family members could encourage people to stop fighting their cases and deport themselves, she says.

Garcia certainly considered self-deportation, he says, but chose to remain in detention in hopes of seeing his daughter again. “I can’t give up for just one reason, which is my daughter,” he says. “It’s very depressing. But we have to keep pushing. I keep pushing forward.”

In Florida, Daniel Lopez is preparing to see his mother Petrona for the first time since she was held at an ICE facility more than two years ago. Two weeks ago, she was granted parole while a court reviews the facts of her immigration case and lives in Maryland with another son. Daniel says he’s glad to be able to talk to his mother privately every day again. But the experience of her incarceration has left emotional anxieties. Both of Petrona’s parents died while she was in custody. When Petrona’s mother died on December 30, 2021, it took two days to reach Petrona and break the news to her, says Daniel. She had no choice but to endure the grief alone. People detained in ICE facilities have not seen their loved ones in two years

Justin Scacco

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