Deadly Choice for Migrant Parents: Leave Kids or Risk COVID Infection

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Photo by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr

Responding to reports that a new Trump administration policy is forcing undocumented migrant parents to choose between family separation and indefinite detention in crowded facilities riven with COVID-19, a group of faith, law enforcement and policy leaders called Thursday for an immediate end to this “binary choice.”

The National Immigration Forum said that as of this week, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) confirmed 1,201 cases of COVID-19 among 2,394 detainees tested—a rate of positives far exceeding the national average—and an additional 44 confirmed cases among detention facility staff.

“While America continues to face the coronavirus pandemic, President Trump has leveraged the crisis to crack down on immigration in ways that make our country less safe,” said Ali Noorani, President and CEO, National Immigration Forum.

“Forcing migrant parents to choose between family separation and indefinite detention in crowded facilities does not make us safer.”

Earlier this month, NBC News reported that several immigrant rights organizations were outraged by the new choice U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was allegedly presenting to migrant parents: “Separate from your child or stay together in detention indefinitely.”

The groups claim that ICE was distributing a form in all three of its family detention centers that would allow parents to apply for their minor children to be released.

According to NBC, in a statement, a spokesperson for ICE said the agency “is exploring all options in response to Judge Gee’s most recent order, which stipulates that ICE safely release children in its custody who don’t pose a public safety or flight risk to sponsors within the U.S.”

The spokesperson went on  to say that ICE has not implemented the order “at this time.”

However, NBC obtained a copy of such a form that states that it is in compliance with the Flores court agreement, which prohibits ICE from holding minors for more than 20 days.”

The released children would be placed with family members, sponsors, or handed over into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services.

The Trump administration faced criticism for its Zero Tolerance policy in 2018 in which undocumented migrant children were separated from parents who had illegally crossed the order. The policy was implemented in May 2018 but reversed.

“Giving parents an impossible choice of accepting indefinite family detention during COVID-19 or being separated from their children is heartbreaking,” Ashley Feasley, Director of Policy, Migration and Refugee Services Offices for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops  told the press briefing.

“It also goes against the best policies that we have as it relates to safe and compliant release in the form of alternatives to detention. As a country we can do better by these families, and by taxpayers by ensuring that families are released and utilize alternatives to detention with case management.”

Retired Sheriff James Manfre of Flagler County, Florida, said, “We need to reduce the population of detainees and we must start by reducing the population of non-violent felony offenders, like those who are in immigration detention who do not pose a serious risk to the broader community.”

Manfre pointed out that “even at their best, detention facilities are unsanitary and have limited access to health care. These are breeding grounds for this pandemic.”

The group Immigration Impact confirms that according to reports from attorneys for detained families, on May 13 and 14, ICE gave parents a “binary choice:” agree for their child to be released without them or waive the child’s right to release under the Flores settlement that governs custody of immigrant children.

“ICE subsequently reported to the court that it planned to continue to detain almost all of the children, stating ‘parent did not wish to separate’ as a reason in every case,” said Immigration Impact.

Enforced family separation is cruel and causes lasting damage, said the advocates in yesterday’s call.

The administration’s recent ‘binary choice’ practice — which forces asylum-seeking parents to choose between separating from their children and indefinite detention in crowded, unsanitary facilities — is nothing short of horrifying,” said Dona Abbott, Senior Vice President, Global, Refugee and Immigrant Services, Bethany Christian Services.

“Asking a parent to make a choice between their child’s long-term emotional health and short-term physical health is cruel,” Abbott said. “As a nation, we can be better than family separation, ‘Remain in Mexico’ and ‘binary choice.’ ”

Nancy Bilyeau is deputy editor of TCR

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