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Ethics, Detention Centers, and a Pandemic

The ethical concerns of immigrant detention centers in the U.S. have been a hotly contested political topic for the past few years, but Covid-19 adds a new dimension of complexity to an already fraught issue. Should these immigrants be released? What should happen when an outbreak occurs? Is ICE liable for any deaths or illness within the centers? How should medical care be distributed? If we release immigrants, who gets to be released, and what will happen to them?

Above all these questions looms one above all: What do immigrants deserve to have, and how and why does it differ from what citizens deserve to have?

Of course, phrasing the topic like this rarely results in civilized conversation. So in the interest of objectivity and accuracy, it is worth considering the present situation of immigrants in detention centers. According to ICE data, there have been over 3,900 cases of Covid-19 in detention centers ( There have been reported shortages of sanitary items such as hand sanitizer and masks (NPR). Recently large groups of children have been released from detention centers, but currently some children have yet to be released, and even more have been separated from their families to do so (Vox). Children had been detained in Hampton hotels and transported in unmarked vans (AP, Forbes). Quite recently, ICE has doubled down on efforts to recruit the public, announcing a “Citizens Academy,” a program that claims to afford ICE “the opportunity to hear from participants, understand their perspectives, and debunk myths” ( This last point has sparked harsh criticism, particularly because the framing ICE uses to describe this program is in direct opposition to the lived experiences of many migrants (Chicago Sun Times). 

These instances delineate a clear pattern of callous disregard for human life. Not only do the facilities lack the medical facilities and space needed to properly treat the amount of cases, the vast majority of ICE employees are not medical professionals and therefore are not qualified to make medical decisions for the immigrants. The decision to keep immigrants detained in non-government facilities and release them without their families marks extreme carelessness.

Where are the children released meant to go? In a country shut down and struggling with the crippling effects of a pandemic, where are children who aren’t from here supposed to live? Who is expected to take care of them?

The ninth amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” What exactly those other rights mean is subject to interpretation, but it is fairly safe to say that nowhere in the Constitution is there justification to strip immigrants of basic human rights. Because that is, essentially, what is happening. We have allowed ourselves to perpetuate a system that distinguishes the rights of immigrants from those of full citizens. These immigrants are isolated and alienated from society, and as society begins to forget about them, they are ascribed to an underclass seen as undeserving of human rights.

This is not a problem that ends when the pandemic does, because the precedents set at this time will inform future decisions made about immigrants, and because the framework needed for the pandemic to exacerbate these problems existed long before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19. And in light of this, I ask again: What do immigrants deserve to have, and how and why does it differ from what citizens deserve to have?


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