The call to free folks from ICE Detention is louder than ever during COVID-19

By Carolina Rivadeneira, Senior Field Organizer, Amnesty International USA

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization. The NYT has estimated that more than 2 million people in the United States have contracted COVID-19, with 113,097 reported deaths. The number of infections and deaths are growing worldwide and there is still little known about this virus. In response to the pandemic, many countries have closed their borders and airports, while others have imposed strict quarantine measures. The universal recommendation to control the spread of COVID-19 has been, “Stay home and save lives!” But what happens when hundreds of people cannot stay home?

Half a million people in the Americas were displaced even before the start of the pandemic. Many people who finally arrive in the US seeking asylum are returned or placed into immigration Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service (ICE) detention centers with conditions that pose threats to their lives. ICE detention centers are not prepared to protect the lives of people who are detained or facility staff. Many lack basic supplies, such as masks, disinfectants, and soap. And there is not enough space to quarantine people in detention. Public health experts predict that unless ICE drastically reduces the numbers of immigrants under its care and custody, anywhere from 72% to nearly 100% of individuals held in many ICE facilities could contract COVID-19 within three months, endangering those held and working in ICE detention facilities and overwhelming hospital capacity. These conditions provide the perfect recipe for COVID-19 to continue spreading beyond detention.

It is nearly impossible to stop the spread of the virus in enclosed facilities like those of ICE detention centers. ICE holds nearly 25,000 people in more than 200 centers across the country. People detained in various ICE detention centers have launched hunger strikes to demand their freedom and to protest against dangerous hygiene and sanitation conditions and lack of protective measures against COVID-19. ICE’s unnecessary and punitive detention based solely on immigration status endangers detainees right to health. ICE must urgently provide alternatives to detention and grant humanitarian parole to people in immigration detention.

The US has a human rights obligation to respect, protect and fulfill the right to health for all, without discrimination. This is not the first or the last time that we will have to imagine alternatives to the immigration detention system. The stakes are high, and how governments respond to this pandemic could determine the future of untold numbers of people. Will they guarantee protections for all who need it? Will they use this opportunity to begin to resolve deep structural inequalities and the lack of prioritization of social rights? Will they put human rights first?

Here is what YOU can do to help free people from ICE detention during COVID-19:

The detention of families and people seeking safety is a human rights violation, and the COVID-19 pandemic is making it even worse. You can help by joining our Days of Action leading up to World Refugee Day!

Thursday, June 18: Day of Learning, Listening and Action!

Day of digital action to target Governors and ICE

Saturday, June 20: World Refugee Day

  • Day of community-building and displays of support for people seeking safety
  • Join local celebrations with handmade signs, posters, flyers, banners to hang outside homes, on lawns, in public spaces in local communities. Plug in to events and activities happening on the ground and virtually in your city!

Sunday, June 21 (Father’s Day): Day of direct letter-writing

On Father’s Day we will write cards and letters to ICE and Governors, our key targets and messengers with the central ask of releasing fathers and families from detention. You can request a toolkit for this father’s day action by email

We've been fighting the bad guys since 1961 - you can join us! Official Amnesty International USA profile.