In late March, hunger strikes broke out at at least two Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities in Louisiana to protest unsafe conditions from the coronavirus epidemic.
At Jackson Correctional Center in Jonesboro, Louisiana, roughly 300 detainees went on hunger strike, according to immigration reform advocates.
In Monroe, Louisiana at the Richwood Detention Center, migrants also went on hunger strike. That's where Hilda Jorge Perez's husband had been detained for the last eight months and recently became involved in the hunger strikes.
In an interview on March 27, Perez said “there's about 60 people involved in the hunger strike and what they're really demanding is to be let out of a detention center because there's no safe way to keep them there.”
Her husband and other detainees learned about the virus through television, according to Perez. She added, "And once they started, to learn about the virus and its dangers, you know, then the guards started to try and limit information coming into the jail.”
Nationally, visits to ICE detention facilities were suspended March 13 to limit the spread of the virus, yet staff continue to move in and out. Thousands of ICE officers, contract guards and employees entering these facilities every day are also at risk. ICE announced it has protocols in place, in accordance with the CDC to protect staff and detainees, but detainees in Richwood have not been given masks, gloves or hand sanitizer.
The former acting director of ICE John Sandwag says ICE detention facilities — along with jails and prisons —are susceptible to outbreak diseases.
“You cannot engage in the kind of social distancing practices that we’re all being required to adhere to now. ICE has the authority to release all individuals, it has absolute discretion," Sandwag said.
He echoed the urgency to release detainees immediately: “This is a very simple, common sense thing for ICE to do, not only to protect the detainees but also to protect ICE agents themselves.”
Many people kept in ICE detention centers are in the category of "discretionary detention." They have not been convicted of a crime. Immigration proceedings can continue as scheduled even if people are out of custody.
Louisiana has become a national hot spot during this pandemic, with high infection rates. Advocates for immigration reform are concerned for the roughly 7,000 migrants in ICE custody in the state.
A press release from Southeast Immigration Rights Network on March 26 shows staggering figures for detainees seeking to be released from custody before their court dates. They say parole grant rates have been at 1 percent for the past two years. A steep fall from the 90 percent parole grant rates 10 years ago. Last September, thousands of Louisiana detainees sued ICE for failing to follow its own parole regulations.
An additional pepper spraying incident was documented in March at the LaSalle ICE Processing Center in Jena, Louisiana. Bryan Cox, southern spokesperson for ICE, confirmed in a statement women were pepper sprayed during a coronavirus briefing here. Cox said these measures were used after the detainees tried to “force their way out of the housing area.”