by Ellen Isaacs
January 6, 2020
As I write this, thousands of racist proto-fascists are storming the US Capitol while over 140 immigrant detainees at Essex County and Hudson County, NJ ICE detention centers are on hunger strike, the third wave of such strikes at NJ facilities in 2020. While protesting inmates are being threatened and coerced, masses of rioting white people are being gently removed from the Capitol, only 13 arrested (that number may grow) after breaching the legislative chambers and causing death and injury. The chasm between the treatment of those who struggle against hatred and oppression, who have fled from violence and poverty, who sicken and die disproportionately from disease, and between those who have been won to hatred and racist violence is gaping and widening.
The conditions against which the undocumented must struggle in the US can be said to be to approaching the poverty and violence from which migrants have fled. From March to July, 2020, nearly 2500 detainees struck nationwide(2) because of poor medical care, lack of masks and social distancing, poor hygiene and abuse. Conditions recently described by detainees and their families include living in crowded dormitories, 48 inmates packed together during a pandemic. They are not allowed to wear masks and receive no Covid-19 testing even when those in their quarters become ill. Testing is only now being used as a threat, as an excuse to put people in solitary, while some are being transferred out of state as retaliation for protesting. Denial of heat, water, and medical care are other means of intimidation(3).
According to figures acknowledged by ICE, 21 people died in Ice detention in 2020, the worst year since 2005, at least 8 from Covid. As of August, 2020, the rate of Covid infections identified by ICE, is over 13 times that of the general population, despite sparse testing(2). How many are really infected in ICE detention centers? It’s hard to say since no one is tested unless they are irrefutably ill with Covid-19 symptoms, but as of 12/23/20, ICE acknowledged 73 cases in the two NJ jails on strike. At least two deaths have been recorded at the Essex County Detention Center(3). And even those numbers are low since anyone who leaves a facility to be released or deported or transferred is no longer counted.
And it is not just Covid that puts immigrant lives at risk. The medical care within ICE facilities has long been known to be inadequate, when not life-threatening, as documented in one of many recent reports(5). Doctors and lawyers supporting pleas for release on medical grounds have found cases of severe medical neglect and mistreatment. In one man, gastrointestinal symptoms lasting months were treated with insufficient or incorrect medications and without any needed assessment for a possible serious illness. Another detainee with an acute cardiac problem that required hospitalization was kept in-house, treated with a contraindicated medication, had no follow up, and any mention of his heart was soon disappeared from the medical record. He was transferred from Essex county to Buffalo as punishment for striking. Even when detainees go to the clinic for respiratory complaints, they often do not have their temperatures taken, let alone get a Covid test. (personal review of medical records).
What does the US get out of imprisoning tens of thousands of immigrants? It is certainly not safety, as they would have the public believe. The major crime for which the undocumented are arrested is being undocumented. Of those arrested for crimes, 38% are for traffic offenses(1). Immigrants, documented and undocumented, are employed at higher levels than native born workers, and they make of up 17% of the work force. They toil in vital jobs like agriculture, meat packing, home health, construction and many low wage service jobs. What the US gets is a mechanism for intimidation and super-exploitation. What capitalist profiteers get is a mechanism to divide workers against one another, white versus black and brown, native born versus foreign born – a way to keep all workers down. What capitalist profiteers get is hundreds of millions of dollars paid to private prison owners who house 70 percent of detainees, like GEO and corrections Corporation of America(4). Municipalities like Hudson County and Essex County, NJ rake in near $120 per day for each prisoner through contracts with ICE (3).
But the price paid in well-being is not only paid by immigrants in detention. It is estimated that ICE detention centers have been responsible for 245,000 Covid-19 cases throughout the country, by virtue of the high infection rate among staff who come and go from the community as well as detainees who are released undiagnosed(2). Moreover, hundreds of deportees have tested positive for covid-19, including over 330 in Guatemala by September, 2020(6), while many sick people have been sent to other central American countries and Haiti.
So let us gaze upon the United States today and wonder if there is a relation between the racist mobs in Washington DC and the striking detained immigrants in New Jersey, surrounded by supporters. Can it be that a capitalist nation decimated by an uncontrolled epidemic, by millions of workers devastated by job loss, hunger, and homelessness, and by falling ever further behind its rival China is taking a further step towards fascism? Racism, nationalism, and irrationality are promoted by ever more desperate rulers in an attempt to mislead the victims of greed and incompetence.
Some hope that all will change when Biden takes over in two weeks, but we must remember that it was under Democrats in 1996 that mandatory detentions and expedited removal were written into law(7). It was under Obama and Biden that over three million immigrants were deported, more than in all previous administrations combined, and family detentions escalated. Biden is also a capitalist, although one favoring more inclusive rhetoric than Trump. But it is the economic and international peril of the US that dictates what we really can expect of any administration. The declining domestic economy and international position of the US will require more repression no matter who is in power. By looking around today we can see that it is acts of oppressed workers that the rulers fear, not those of a white nationalist mob. For us, the need is to build a wide and strong multi-ethnic, anti-racist, anti-capitalist movement to demand reform and, ultimately, system change.