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Aissa Olivarez: Legal protection for detained immigrants more important than ever during coronavirus pandemic
Aissa Olivarez: Legal protection for detained immigrants more important than ever during coronavirus pandemic

Aissa Olivarez: Legal protection for detained immigrants more important than ever during coronavirus pandemic

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Aissa Olivarez

Aissa Olivarez

The United States is now several weeks into an unprecedented response to the coronavirus pandemic. Many states — taking cues from the medical community — have adopted safety measures, such as “social distancing” and “shelter in place.” The goal is to avoid human exposure as much as possible to slow the spread of COVID-19, the potentially deadly disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Yet Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has continued to act irresponsibly with the lives they hold in their custody.

ICE has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with inconsistent, rapidly shifting policies that run counter to the advice of public health experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recently, and without alerting the public, ICE transported more than 150 people in custody in the Kenosha County Detention Facility in Kenosha to several facilities in southern Illinois — and even as far away as Texas. This action exponentially compounded the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak to those detained, the detention center staff, and the surrounding communities.

I am an immigration attorney with the Community Immigration Law Center in Madison, and my clients are detained in the Dodge Detention Facility, which is now the only ICE facility in Wisconsin.

The stakes could not be higher for those in immigration detention. Detention facilities do not have enough space for social distancing, and are ill-equipped to provide adequate medical care. The pandemic is an additional concern for those in immigration detention who are already running the risk of permanent separation from their families and communities, and facing the forced return to dangerous or deadly conditions in another country.

Further exacerbating this reality, ICE has made it significantly more difficult for family members to pay bond. Clients who are released are often stranded for hours — sometimes in a different state — not knowing when someone will be able to pick them up. ICE’s lack of transparency makes legal representation a logistical nightmare, and ICE’s flagrant disregard for public health concerns might prove fatal.

Without an attorney, it is nearly impossible for people to successfully navigate this labyrinth and secure release. Research has shown that those who have legal counsel are more than three times more likely to be released than those without legal counsel. Our immigration attorneys have been able to win release for 42 percent of clients. Unfortunately, being released was not a reality for 63 percent of detained people (with cases initiated in the 2019 fiscal year) in Chicago, all of whom lacked access to legal representation.

Without delay, ICE must release everyone in its custody and comply with public health protocols to protect our communities. At the same time, local government leaders play a critical role. Thanks to the strong leadership in Dane County and Madison, I am able to fight for my clients’ rights to due process when their lives, liberty and families are at stake. Other counties and cities should follow suit and fund deportation defense programs to protect the well-being of our neighbors and ensure that the voices of those who are detained do not go unheard.

Olivarez is the managing attorney at the Community Immigration Law Center, based in Madison, where she represents many clients in removal and bond proceedings and appeals:


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