What's Happening in ICE Detention Camps

Willow Sylvester

Ways to help are listed below. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic and other important events and movements take over our daily news, one urgent crisis has fallen off our radar: the ongoing crisis inside Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers throughout the United States. More than 32 thousand detainees, many of them children who have been separated from their parents, are being held in unsanitary and dangerous conditions by ICE in over 200 detention facilities with inadequate access to food, water, sanitation, and medical supplies. A New York Times reporter stated that there was “a stench” at one such facility in Texas, and that “The children have not been able to bathe since crossing the border, and their clothes are soiled with snot and tears.” Yet, as of now, there is little information being released about what is happening within these ICE detention centers, and even less information on how we can help.


Family Separations Within ICE  

Although the information is scarce, what we do know about these facilities is unacceptable and should not be allowed to continue. It is a frightening display of economics being prioritized over human lives at a policy level. From 2017 to 2019, through the Family Separation Act, ICE was legally mandated to separate children from their parents with no formal tracking system that would allow the children’s parents to find them, allowing children to be shipped to facilities all over the country. Even though the current administration was pressured by the outraged public in 2019 to abolish the Family Separation Act (there had been thousands of filed complaints of sexual assaults against the children), there are still facilities in the Southern states that are continuing to separate families. The footage from these facilities is absolutely heartbreaking, there’s audio of children shouting for their parents and photographs of children in weeks-old clothes sleeping on cement. There is no evidence of lawfulness in these facilities, as even the families who enter through legal ports of entry are being separated.

COVID-19 Outbreaks Place Detainees in Danger 

There have been reports that ICE detention camps have seen major COVID-19 outbreaks while the immigrants and asylum seekers inside plead for safety equipment and protection for everyone – especially for the old and vulnerable. As of now, their demands have continuously been ignored, and the detainees are still forced to continue to work inside the facilities without adequate protective equipment. The crowded and unsanitary conditions inside the detention centers make those contained within their walls even more vulnerable to the spread of the disease, contamination, and immune weakness. Because the detainees are not U.S. citizens, the U.S. government is not required to report their cases or deaths, meaning that many of them end up in unmarked mass graves and do not contribute to the COVID-19 statistics reported by the U.S. With no record of COVID-19 deaths amongst these asylum seekers, their family members have no way of knowing what happens to them. 


The effects of these unsafe policies are evident when one takes into account that, as of June 4th, approximately 3,146 detainees had been tested and more than half of them tested positive for the COVID-19, making the COVID-19 rate among detainees more than fifty times that of the rest of the U.S. In May, the Journal of Urban Health made the disturbing prediction that a majority of the detainees inside ICE facilities would soon be infected with COVID-19. Throughout this, ICE claims to be encouraging its employees to follow the CDC guidelines, yet ICE has a history of disregarding safety measures and basic principles to keep detainees safe. In order to prevent this situation from continuing, we need to take action by demanding transparency, accountability, and information to be released on what is happening inside these detention facilities.

In an attempt to make their voices heard, detainees within the facilities have been writing letters to anyone willing to listen about the horrifying conditions they are forced to face. A letter signed by approximately 100 detainees reads, “we may die and are afraid… we were served spoiled foods, [we’re] starving, bathrooms are bad, violation of right...” Other letters emphasize their concerns over the guards coming in and out of the facilities that refuse to regularly wear masks, causing fear to run rampant throughout the already unsanitary detention centers. By writing these letters, detainees tell their stories and experiences within ICE facilities in hopes of receiving some type of help. “People come here to seek asylum, not to be imprisoned like a criminal or to have your child taken from you… We want justice and to be reunited with our children as soon as possible,” Claudia, an asylum seeker, wrote about her experience within the U.S. These letters are being used by lawyers and advocates to pressure the government into releasing vulnerable detainees and implementing better health and safety measures in all of the ICE detention centers and facilities.

International Students At Risk Of Being Deported  


Most recently, the Trump administration announced on July 7 that international students on an F-1 or M-1 visa, known as student visas, will be facing deportation if they are not taking at least one in-person class. This modification to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), which is operated by ICE, does not allow the student to stay even if the student is enrolled full-time at their school or university. International students are now forced to either “depart the country, or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status,” ICE declared on Monday. The consequences of this rule will be devastating to the countless students who are attending universities that have either decided to completely transfer to online learning or will offer the majority of their courses online in light of the ongoing pandemic in the United States. These international students don’t have a choice as to whether their schools go online or not, and now because of something out of their control, they are essentially given the choice to return to a potentially dangerous home situation or get detained by ICE and stay at their detention centers.


All of this, and everything else that remains hidden, should have never been allowed to go unnoticed seeing that as of May, countless detainees have died in ICE custody across the United States. The lives of hundreds of men, women, and children confined to the deplorable conditions within the ICE detention centers are in danger each and every day. Their voices need to be heard and their pleas need to be answered, not only because their treatment violates basic human rights, but because no one should ever have to live in fear – especially not at the hands of a government-backed agency, and especially when the reason for them being at the hands of that government is that they were living in fear in their own home country. We need to recognize that asylum seekers and refugees flee their homes not by choice, but by means of survival; they deserve our protection.


  • DONATE: You can help by donating to organizations such as: 
  • CALL YOUR ELECTED OFFICIALS: Reach out to your elected officials at this link about supporting immigrant rights and spreading awareness. All you need to do is input your address and click on your elected official to find a method to contact them. 
  • VOLUNTEER: Many organizations offer a variety of volunteering opportunities. They depend and appreciate the work volunteers do- the following are a list where you can volunteer: 
  • SUPPORT: You can also help the refugee/immigrant community by supporting refugee/immigrant-owned businesses all over the country. 
  • EDUCATE: It’s important to go out of our way to educate ourselves and others about these issues – both the policy and the emotional side. By using social media and posting about these important issues, you can use your voice to amplify what you learn about and spread awareness and join the fight against injustice. You can advocate and learn about what the refugee/immigrant community is facing by educating yourself on these issues. You can listen to podcasts, view youtube channels, read, or watch documentaries/films on such issues. Here are some useful places to start:
    • Epimonia Podcasts – On our Safer Room Podcast, we interview a new refugee or refugee advocate every Wednesday.
    • Website: https://unitedwedream.org – United We Dream is a great educational resource about immigration in the United States that includes information, petitions, and stories. You can also follow them on Instagram at @unitedwedream
    • Podcasts: This Week In Immigration and Redirect 

Written by Graciela Flores, an Epimonía research ambassador

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