The United States and Mexico have for decades been the primary detaining countries in the Americas region, with the largest detention centers and the most sophisticated immigration control and deportation systems. It is estimated that the United States has close to 40,000 people currently in immigration detention and Mexico around 2,000. Against a background of the increasing use of detention, and of particular concern, the continued detention of children, the threat of Covid-19 and a global movement of social distancing highlights the extreme vulnerability of people in immigration detention to the spread of infectious disease, as well as the lack of access to adequate medical care, over and above the rights violations implicit in a system of mandatory immigration detention.

Advocates in Mexico have rallied together around this issues, with a powerful collective of IDC Americas member and partner organizations initiating a multi-level advocacy strategy to demand that the Mexican government release migrants from detention centers due to the risk of contagion of Covid-19 due to the conditions in which people are deprived of liberty.

Together with Instituto para las Mujeres en la Migración, Sin Fronteras, Fundación para la Justicia y el Estado de Derecho, Asylum Access, Otros Dreams en Acción, and other partners, we launched a campaign calling on the Mexican government to release all migrants and asylum seekers from detention centers and provide them with immigration documentation in the form of a temporary humanitarian visa, temporarily suspend migrant raids and enforcement measures throughout the country to avoid new detentions and to provide information regarding the national measures being taken to avoid the spread of Covid-19 and contact information for local health clinics, international and national organizations.


Collective litigation and advocacy work

Throughout these last weeks we have also highlighted the collective litigation and advocacy work that has been carried out by more than 40 organizations concerned with the freedom and health of migrants in the framework of the pandemic: These actions are reflected in various webinars, communications to federal and state authorities, law suits, a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos), reports and calls to action.

Advocates are perhaps most hopeful of the unprecedented success seen recently in the courts. Some of these organizations filed a constitutional legal action and the court issued a favorable historic resolution, an injunction ordering immigration authorities in Mexico to immediately release migrants belonging to vulnerable groups that are currently detained and to ensure that no child is detained in a detention center. These are two of 11 measures ordered to safeguard the life and health of the more than 2,000 migrants and asylum seekers that immigration authorities have reported in detention. Legal actions continue in various states in the country, in order to keep up the legal pressure for immigration authorities to comply with the order, of which to date there has been no notification.

At the time of writing, it appears that this collective advocacy is having some impact and IDC Americas has received reports that apprehensions have slowed down and many detained migrants have been released in Mexico in recent weeks, albeit without a formal procedure. It is unclear what actions immigration authorities will take in the coming weeks. The advocacy challenge remains to establish release procedures with screening and safeguards, as well as referral to post-release support structures. IDC Americas joins our Mexican partners in working on a range of proposals to develop and implement alternatives to detention for those released or at risk of further detention. Of additional concern is that deportations continue, as Mexican immigration authorities have been concentrating detained migrants in the three largest detention centers of Mexico City, Acayucan and Tapachula, deporting some through negotiated agreements with Central American governments.

Furthermore, Amnesty International Mexico has called on the country’s highest Covid-19 authority, the Undersecretary of Health Prevention and Promotion, to back these calls for release of detained migrants and asylum seekers to protect their health and to make a public plea to immigration authorities in this regard, as well as providing access to housing and health services to the migrant and refugee population in Mexico.

The next few days will be crucial for Mexican migration and health authorities whose duty is to put migrant’s right to health above immigration control in order to reduce the risks of Covid-19 infection among this population.

Further north in the region, advocates in the United States have been amongst the most active, progressive and vocal on calling for release of the tens of thousands currently held in immigration detention centers and jails around the country. Two new reports, the first from the Detention Watch Network and the second from Amnesty International, clearly demonstrate the high risk to the lives of migrants in detention and the collective public health threat posed by unnecessary immigration detention.

Advocacy strategies range from litigation for release of immigrants from detention to important community organizing through broad national campaigns that also amplify state and local actions, such as Detention Watch Network’s call to #FreeThemAll. Further, nearly 200 state, local and national organizations worked with Congress to support the Federal Immigrant Release for Safety and Security Together Act  (First Act) to work toward the release of people from detention. The Act provides urgent and critical restrictions on immigration detention and enforcement during this unprecedented national public health emergency to protect immigrant communities and collective health. You can read their letter of support.

Several of IDC’s member and partner organizations have shared a range of useful collective research and advocacy tools and resources in response to Covid-19.

Detention Watch Network developed and shared on its website key messaging guidance on Covid-19 and immigration detention and a useful toolkit to support local demands for mass release from ICE custody.

The Vera Institute of Justice has shared Guidance for preventative and responsive measures to coronavirus in immigration detention

Freedom for Immigrants launched a section of their National Immigration Detention Hotline specifically to respond to Covid-19.  With social visitation indefinitely suspended, this court-protected hotline is one of the few free and confidential resources available to maintain communication with people in detention. They are also providing people across the United States with housing post release through a network of volunteers and a house they operate in Louisiana.

Freedom for Immigrants also released an interactive real-time map that tracks the number of cases in U.S. immigration detention and the government’s failure to adequately respond to this pandemic. They have so far documented over 100 confirmed Covid-19 cases since the first person was diagnosed in late March. This tool tracks reports of isolation and quarantine measures in responses to Covid-19, noting their implementation in an ad hoc and dangerous way. Detention staff failure to observe proper health protocols and extreme inadequate medical responses during lockdown, resulting in substantial risk to both detained and non-detained populations, are also documented.

One initiative to watch in the coming weeks is Justice in Motion´s recently launched Child Detention Crisis Initiative, which will work through their Defender Network to bring together advocates from the United States, Central America and Mexico to free migrant children from U.S. immigration detention and reunite them with their families.

Finally, on April 26, the immigration authorities reported through a bulletin that they had emptied almost its entire population from detention centers. There are many criticisms of the lack of a program of alternatives that would have allowed the channeling of migrants to hostels or hotels, instead there were massive deportations, even of childhood and adolescence, to places that could be a risk for them, not only of getting Covid-19. There is still a need for coordination between actors to guarantee the right to health of people who are still in Mexico through a program of alternatives managed by authorities and civil society.