Shalyn Fluharty is director of the Dilley Pro Bono Project, which represents women and children seeking asylum.

DILLEY, Tex. — Under normal circumstances, the South Texas Family Residential Center, the largest immigration detention center in the United States, is a monument to injustice. During the covid-19 pandemic, Dilley has become a dangerous petri dish for disease, risking the health of the mothers and children confined there, who should be safely released into the community until their asylum claims can be heard.

Dilley and two other family detention facilities — in Karnes City, Tex., and Berks County, Pa. — warehouse parents and children seeking asylum from the threat of abuse, rape, death and torture in their home countries. Although children are supposed to be held in this facility and others like it for no more than 20 days under a long-standing Settlement Agreement, that limit is regularly ignored; 47 children have been detained for more than 200 days, celebrating milestones such as first steps and birthdays in detention.

The pandemic has made the substandard conditions at these “baby jails” even more intolerable, which is why families have petitioned federal judges in California and the District to release them. On Monday, the U.S. government has been ordered to explain to a federal judge in California why it continues to detain at least 341 children whose safety it is legally required to protect in family detention facilities.

The government claims it has taken adequate steps to prevent the spread of the virus at these detention facilities. In fact, social distancing under these conditions is physically impossible. Mothers and children typically sleep on bunk beds jammed into portable trailers with five other families. They use bathrooms shared by approximately 118 individuals, and eat meals in a packed dining hall.

In response to the virus, immigration officials have tried to take steps to impose social distancing, limiting to two the number of families in each room and having detainees eat in 20-minute rotations. But social distancing is a myth when bedrooms, bathrooms and dining facilities must be shared, especially when children are involved. Access to community spaces has been restricted, if not eliminated, and families must now remain in their rooms approximately 22 hours a day. Keep in mind that these are not criminals being confined to cells — they are families who have done nothing but assert their right, under U.S. law, to seek asylum, and who are not supposed to be kept in secure unlicensed facilities under the terms of the Settlement Agreement at all.

It is fanciful to imagine that these changes will suffice to keep families safe from covid-19. Every day new families arrive at Dilley with symptoms indicative of the virus; there are concerns that guards at the facility might have contracted the virus. Families continue to share rooms, sinks and bathrooms, and report limited access to soap, cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment. Despite the shouts of facility guards who order children not to touch as they pass on the way to the bathroom or sit next to each other during dinner, it is only a matter of time before everyone is sick.

Increased facility restrictions, while necessary, have gutted the few freedoms that help families survive the anguish of prolonged detention. The psychological and physical harms of detention on children are well documented, and the more restrictive the setting, the more children suffer. I have represented numerous children who attempted to kill themselves while detained before covid-19, including one teenager who tried to hang herself from a shower rod when her detention became indefinite.

Whistleblowing doctors who oversee the medical care provided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Dilley have repeatedly decried it as inadequate. Before the virus, in July 2019, one former client told Congress about the lack of medical care and unsanitary conditions that led to the death of her 19-month-old daughter, Mariee, from an infection she received while detained. There are at least 46 mothers and children with preexisting medical conditions — such as anemia, pulmonary disease and respiratory issues that have required the ongoing use of a nebulizer — who could face death if infected by covid-19. When they contract the coronavirus — which is only a matter of time if they remain detained — the nearest hospital capable of providing them with emergency care is about 80 miles away and likely already overwhelmed with covid-19 cases.

The length of time these families have been detained violates multiple court orders spanning decades. A pandemic is now added to the equation, placing everyone at risk. There is an easy alternative. Families detained in Dilley have family members and friends who are ready to receive them into their homes, where they can shelter in place as their asylum cases proceed. Numerous federal and state court judges have already ordered the release of individuals in criminal custody and immigration detention. We cannot ask mothers to wait patiently for their children — or themselves — to become too sick to travel or, worse, too sick to survive. These families must be released immediately, before it is too late.

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