FOR TWO YEARS, OLIVER AWSHANA has been fighting for his life. Since ICE began trying to deport the 31-year-old refugee to his native Iraq, he has petitioned multiple courts, fought his way off a deportation flight, and endured almost a year in a Michigan county jail—all to avoid returning to the country from which he fled a decade ago, where he says he would most likely face torture.
Now, in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, he finds himself ill—with some symptoms consistent with COVID-19—and stuck in jail. His attorney, Shanta Driver, has petitioned a federal judge to order his release. Since jails are hotspots for outbreaks, and a court order is preventing his deportation anyway, she argues that his continued detention is dangerous and unnecessary.
“Why should we even be having this argument? If he’s sick at all, just let him go,” Driver, co-chairperson of the civil rights group By Any Means Necessary, told The Appeal.
Even under such extraordinary circumstances, however, ICE is still fighting to keep Awshana locked up.
The agency’s insistence on incarceration, even during the worst global pandemic in more than a century, reveals the rigidity of its detain-at-all-costs ethos. Though ICE has cut back on arrests and deportations in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, the agency has adopted no policies aimed at releasing any of the 38,000 people it keeps in county jails and private detention centers across the country—leaving, according to advocates, people like Awshana “sitting ducks” to a possibly deadly contagion.
As decarceration advocates have pointed out, social distancing enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is almost impossible in jails and prisons, especially in facilities where prisoners don’t have free access to soap and sanitizer. “If a pandemic enters into a facility, we know that it’s going to affect almost everyone inside that facility,” said Holly Cooper, co-director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of California, Davis. As an example, Cooper points to the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City. As of March 25, Rikers had a COVID-19 infection rate seven times higher than the rest of New York—the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States—according to an analysis by The Legal Aid Society.
“This is an emergency,” said Driver.