“We couldn’t keep up with the calls and voicemails at first,” said Pilar Gonzalez Morales, Senior Staff Attorney at CREEC, “it was a tsunami of people who were in crisis, seeking re-assessment and needing help to do so.” In response to a motion for an emergency preliminary injunction filed by CREEC and co-counsel on March 25, 2020 in Fraihat v ICE, the court ordered ICE to conduct new assessments for every person at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 in ICE custody for release redetermination. If ICE cannot take the medically necessary precautions to protect medically vulnerable people in immigration detention, they should be released and allowed to shelter in place safely in their homes. To ensure contact with those medically vulnerable people, the court also ordered ICE to create a free, confidential hotline that detained people could call to contact Fraihat class counsel in May 2020.
The word spread quickly. “The sheer volume of calls to the hotline showed us that ICE had followed at least one requirement of the court’s order and that was to post the redetermination ruling and hotline number in ICE detention jails,” said Gonzalez Morales. Unfortunately, it has also revealed the chaos of ICE’s inadequate COVID-19 response and utter lack of a consistent, navigable process in ICE detention prisons for immigrants who are eligible for re-determination and their advocates to follow. “We have learned from hotline callers that what should be a straight-forward redetermination application process for people who are medically vulnerable and scared of the COVID breeding ground that exists in congregate settings like ICE prisons, is actually a nearly impossible path full of unnecessary and cruel barriers created by ICE, “ said Elizabeth Jordan, Director of CREEC’s Immigration Detention Accountability Project. “The lack of regard for basic human health reveals a callous and utterly ineffective, broken system – a system that is being financially supported by every single taxpayer in the United States. It’s a travesty.”
As summer has turned to fall, calls from people in detention who are at increased risk of severe medical complication or even death due to COVID-19 infection and their advocates continue to flow in. CREEC, Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) staffers have fielded the nearly 600 calls that have come in since May 2020. Natalie M. Chin, City University of New York law professor and Co-Director of the Disability and Aging Justice Clinic (DAJC) has been following the Fraihat v ICE case and thought that some of her students might be interested in helping with the hotline. Professor Chin states, “DAJC is an extensive in-house clinic that requires our student legal interns to engage in approximately 30-36 hours of weekly clinic work that is geared toward advancing the rights, dignity, and self-determination of persons with disabilities and older adults. In addition to representing clients, students engage in an advocacy project that is focused on tackling disability and aging issues in a more systemic way. The Fraihat hotline provides a unique opportunity this fall for DAJC students to provide support and assistance to disabled and aging persons who are in ICE detention facilities that have little to no regard for their health or safety. We are excited to support the work of CREEC, SPLC, and DRA on the important and often overlooked issue of disabled and aging individuals who are suffering in ICE detention.”
Through November, four of Ms. Chin’s students are helping staff the hotline – hearing the stories of people in detention, providing information on how detained people can ask ICE to determine whether or not they are members of the Fraihat class, and providing them with pro se documents they need to complete the redetermination application at the facility where they are being held. “As a legal intern who aspires to advocate on behalf of marginalized individuals when I become a lawyer, it is an honor to work on the Fraihat hotline. The hotline provides an opportunity to support and hold space for individuals who are treated inhumanly in ICE custody with the goal of achieving justice within an unjust system.” Jennifer Lopez, CUNY third-year law student.
CREEC and co-counsel are grateful to the volunteer CUNY law students who are helping to staff the hotline this fall. “We and the people we’re working to support in ICE prisons need the help,” said Pilar Gonzalez. “We’re also glad that the word is getting out about ICE’s misdeeds, inhumane policies, and inept systems. The more people who know about what’s going on, the more people will be outraged and will work alongside us and our Fraihat class members to bring needed change.”
If you or someone you know is in ICE detention and may be eligible for release redetermination due to medical vulnerabilities associated with a heightened risk of complications due to COVID-19, contact us.