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Undocumented Immigrants Face Dangerous Conditions in Detention 

by Lynn Silverman, Erica Serlin, and Marta Karlov

On June 22, 2020, the Temple Beth El Immigrant Rights Action Team co-sponsored an educational presentation and advocacy action request with Dane Sanctuary Coalition about the impact of COVID-19 on undocumented immigrants. This event was open to all Temple Beth El congregants and Dane Sanctuary Coalition member congregations through a live Zoom event.

This presentation was tied to our receipt of a $1,500 mini-grant award from the Gilbert and Eleanor Krause Initiative for Immigrant and Refugee Justice at the Religious Action Center (RAC). We used this grant to partner with the Community Immigration Law Center (CILC) to provide education to CILC’s attorneys to enhance the legal representation they provide to immigrants facing deportation. Aissa Olivarez, managing attorney for CILC, described the trainings and then spoke about the status of immigrants in detention and the impact of COVID-19 on these immigrants.

Ms. Olivarez noted that there are currently 50,000 immigrants in detention nationwide, more people detained than in the previous 150 years. Because of expanded priorities under the current administration, people convicted of any offense, no matter how minor, or even just charged with an offense, can be detained. Vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women, parents with young children, and mentally ill people, are no longer protected. Detainees include individuals who have overstayed their visas and those awaiting court decisions on removal, including people seeking asylum from violence and persecution. All of this detracts attention from those who actually pose a safety risk.

Conditions in detention have been dangerous for years. There have been 193 deaths of people in ICE custody since 2004. Now with COVID-19, the risk is even more pronounced and the conditions even more dire. The detention centers have no capacity for social distancing, do not provide adequate protection, and have limited medical care. For this reason, the RAC, the Union for Reform Judaism’s social justice arm, has been advocating for immediate release of detainees to sponsors and family members.

In addition, our program included brief presentations by two local nonprofits that provide advocacy for the Latinx community, Worker Justice Wisconsin and Voces de la Frontera. They spoke about their efforts to promote safe return-to-work environments for low-wage and undocumented workers in the age of COVID-19.

Our presentation concluded with several suggestions for action steps, including donating to local organizations supporting undocumented immigrants, such as Dane County Immigrant Assistance Fund, voting and working on get-out-the-vote campaigns, and writing to legislators to ask them to release all people held in detention and to stop deportations. A sample letter from the Interfaith Immigration Coalition Toolkit was included for participants.

September 20, 2020 2 Tishrei 5781