WATCH: COVID-19 Is Spreading Throughout Jails. And Some Inmates Aren’t Even Criminals.

By Ellen Chamberlain

May 21, 2020

These women in Michigan are working toward the release of people only guilty of pursuing the American dream.

DETROIT — As President Trump’s administration continues to come down hard on immigrants, seeing how they are faring during the pandemic has some activists calling for better treatment. Particularly the described subhuman conditions in immigrant detention centers, as these residents await court decisions in a backlogged system.

Samantha Magdaleno is executive director of One Michigan for Immigrant Rights. She has grown up with the organization, first working with them in their early days as One Michigan for Immigrant Youth.

“We started fighting for the undocumented youth of Michigan because we were those youth,” she says of the organization’s infancy. “As we grew up and weren’t exactly youth ourselves, our mission grew to fight for everyone.”

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It’s a mission now includes helping secure release for non-criminal immigrants who are in Michigan’s COVID-ridden jails and detention centers. The job is proving to be difficult.

“We’re working with a man who qualified for DACA, had never been in trouble and they [ICE] detained him,” Magdaleno tells The ‘Gander

The man’s payment for DACA paperwork wasn’t processed properly, making him eligible for detainment despite being equal parts Michgander and Mexican. Magdaleno isn’t sure if she will be able to help, but she is still trying.

“This young man basically started freaking out. We didn’t know what the virus was [in February], there were no tests at that time,” she tells The ‘Gander. “He ended up self-deporting…he said he didn’t want to die before he had a chance to give his mother a hug.”

President Trump’s tighter border restrictions may prevent Magdaleno and One Michigan from reuniting the Michigan family in the near future, but they have successfully secured the release of 17 women from the Southwest Louisiana Basile Detention Center in the meantime.

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) office in Michigan is working toward the same goal of releasing Michigan’s immigrants from state detention centers. Attorney Monica Andrade helps to reunite families and free people from inhumane conditions.

“I haven’t heard of anything being shut down [in the courts], but I am hearing of people’s hearings being rescheduled,” Andrade tells our sister publication in Michigan, The ‘Gander. “And when you’ve already been detained for 18 months and this could have been the hearing to decide when you could be released, that really impacts a lot of people.”

She says her strategy is to urge the courts to release people who are considered at-risk for coronavirus contraction while detained. 

Immigrants who are not criminals are not required to be detained in Michigan jails, Andrade says. They can also be released with electronic tethers to monitor their locations. 

As an immigrant herself who grew up in a border state, Andrade had seen her fair share of detention hearings as an Arizona social worker before becoming a lawyer. After years of working within that state’s system as a civil servant, she decided to pursue the law to greater impact the lives of fellow immigrants.

Jailing immigrants has been an American standard for years, but with the coronavirus spreading quickly throughout the Michigan Department of Corrections, the practice could be more dangerous than helpful.

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“We’ve gotten declarations from the people detained in these centers,” she says, describing the commonalities among the over 125 detained immigrants at Michigan’s Calhoun County Jail.

“I’m hearing that there are 60 people to a pod and there’s no way to practice social distancing in those conditions.”

Andrade says anyone who is detained is given a bar of soap when they first arrive at the jail. But when that soap is gone, they have no way of sanitizing unless they can afford to replenish their own soap. 

“If you yourself don’t have any money, or your family doesn’t have money to purchase supplies, you do not have access to the very things we’re being told we need to prevent contraction of this virus.”

The Calhoun County Jail referred The ‘Gander to ICE’s Detroit office for comment on their conditions. The phone system offers over half a dozen options in its automated system, including referral phone numbers for adjacent agencies. None could comment on the conditions at the jail.

At the original time of these interviews in April, the state reported 1,898 infections and another 48 deaths throughout the corrections department alone. As of Wednesday that number has grown to 3,195 infections and another 60 deaths throughout the DOC.

While many nonviolent offenders and inmates nearing their release dates are being released, organizations like One Michigan for Immigrant Rights and the ACLU of Michigan are ensuring that the state’s immigrant population is afforded the same consideration.

More information can be found on ACLU Michigan’s website.



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