Immigrant Detention and Removal Are Not Essential
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Immigrant Detention and Removal Are Not Essential

The US Supreme Court has temporarily postponed oral arguments; most state and local courts have as well. Yet, despite the risk posed by COVID-19, immigration courts across America continue to hold in-person removal proceedings. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) continues apprehensions. Individuals are still being placed on international flights and deported to their home countries.

The Trump administration began issuing country-specific travel restrictions in early February. On March 15, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended no gatherings of more than 50, a day later it reduced the recommended gathering size to no more than 10. Both of the US land borders have been closed to all but essential travel since March 20. As of April 7, all but 8 states have issued state-wide stay at home orders. Yet, immigration courts remain open and deportations continue.

We have all heard by now that we should only leave our homes for essential business. What is essential? Healthcare is essential. Our medical system relies on immigrants. In 2015, 17 percent of those working in the medical field were foreign-born. It is not just low-skill workers; 28 percent of physicians and surgeons are immigrants. Immigrants are also essential to our food supply from farms to retail stores. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients work on the frontlines of this crisis while waiting for a Supreme Court decision that may end the program. Essential businesses rely on foreign-born workers. These workers are essential.

Immigration detention is not essential. Under the Trump administration, immigration detention has not only increased, but detention priorities have shifted as well. The majority (60 percent) of individuals in immigration detention have been charged with no criminal offense. Of those with a criminal charge, the majority are misdemeanors or petty offenses. Less than 10 percent of the more than 38,000 people currently in immigration detention have been charged with what ICE considers a major (level-1) crime. And now, there are reported cases of COVID-19 in immigration detention facilities.

ICE employees have been infected. Detained individuals are transported by detention facility staff to immigration courts to stand before immigration judges and ICE attorneys, and, if they are lucky, beside their own lawyer. Every removal proceeding puts an untold number of people at risk. On March 15, the National Association of Immigrant Judges (NAIJ) filed a joint memo with the American Immigration Lawyer Association (AILA) and the American Federal Government Employee (AFGE) union calling for immigration courts to be closed. Immigrants’ rights organizations have filed a number of lawsuits demanding the release of vulnerable individuals. On April 8, AILA and others filed an emergency temporary restraining order to close the immigration courts. Yet, the courts remain open, the detention centers remain full, and deportations continue.

In the face of such injustice, it is necessary to ask who benefits from this? Clearly, not the American people who rely on immigrants as essential workers. Not the federal employees and immigration advocates that have called for the closure of the courts. The prison industry and President Trump’s political career benefit.

The Trump administration has cracked down on all forms of immigration. These policies cater to his nativist, anti-immigrant base. In the face of widespread public outrage, the administration has not backed down; following up on the Muslim travel bans by separating children from their families and then creating Remain in Mexico and Third Safe Country policies that defy international asylum standards. It is no surprise that a deadly pandemic has done little to change his anti-immigrant stance. His base will not mourn the loss of migrant lives. But how will they justify the collateral damage?

Since Trump took office, the private prison industry has flourished. Could the profits of the private prison industry be worth more than the health and safety of the individuals involved in the immigration system? How much money would be lost if the government ordered the release of all detained immigrants with no criminal charges? What if all the detainees held for petty offenses were released? Is the administration afraid that if it declares immigration detention and deportation non-essential the people will realize that it was unnecessary from the start? What will happen to the profits of GEO Group and CoreCivic, the two largest private detention corporations? To Trump’s nativist base?

COVID-19 is forcing a conversation in this country about what is essential. For me, when it comes to immigration, the answer is clear. President Trump’s political career and the private prison industry are not essential. Immigrants are essential, immigration detention and deportation are not essential. The health and safety of the people involved in the immigration system are essential.

I add my voice to the NAIJ, AILA, and AFGE and call for the immigration courts to temporarily close. I join the Democratic Representatives and immigration advocates that are calling for an immediate reduction in the number of individuals in immigration detention. The status quo serves no legitimate interest and puts us all at risk.


Anne Bloomberg is a law student at University of Pittsburgh School of Law and a staff writer for JURIST. She has a PhD in Sociology from the University of Virginia and studies the boundary of rights, access to justice, and the rule of law.


Suggested citation: Anne Bloomberg, Immigrant Detention and Removal Are Not Essential, JURIST – Student Commentary, April 10, 2020,


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