Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I thought that as a pro bono immigration attorney I had a pretty strong grasp of what fighting an uphill battle against an unjust system looked like. Every day, I would ferry myself between detention centers, courtrooms, rallies, and community spaces, trying to get justice for my clients in a harsh political climate.
Now, I spend most of my time in front of my old laptop trying to find the clearest and most compelling way to convince the Executive Office of Immigration Review that COVID-19 is a global health pandemic and perhaps a little humanity is called for.
It is not hyperbole to say I am trying to save my clients lives.
Even as everything else shuts down, people in detention are still required to appear before the immigration courts. The industry of deporting mothers, brothers, and friends is business as usual. Although all contact legal visits have been suspended and tele-video hours have been slashed in half, courts still expect detainees to present their applications for relief.
Due process violations are rampant. A judge pressured pro se detainees to waive their right to an interpreter. Medical records take days or weeks to arrive. The court is unable to review motions in a timely manner or even consider evidence that is buried under piles of unopened mail.
People in immigration detention cannot socially distance and lack access to essential supplies and medical care. Jails and detention centers are always dangerous to people’s health. During a pandemic they are death traps.
In mid-March, over 100 detainees at Essex County Correctional Facility (ECCF) participated in a hunger strike demanding access to sanitation supplies and petitioning for their release. Their statement read, “This coronavirus is getting out of control and if we were to be infected, I am sure everyone would rather die on the outside with our families than in here.”
Now, there are almost a hundred confirmed positive cases among people detained at ECCFthough the actual numbers are likely far higherand more than 80 staff have tested positive.
On March 30, attorneys were notified that the court would be closed for two weeks, but just days later, we got word that court would resume the next day.
A few days after that, I tested positive for COVID-19.
At first, I didn’t realize I was sick. I was so overwhelmed with the constant onslaught of danger my clients faced that I thought I was just having a bodily reaction to the stress.
When I requested an adjournment due to my COVID-19 diagnosis, I was told to appear via telephone, “just like everyone else.”
My body felt like it was moving through razor-filled molasses, thick and slow but sharp and painful. My brain felt like it was working through a fog, words often blurring in the glare of my computer and sounds from virtual meetings piercing through my throbbing temples. My partner would wake me up in the middle of the night because I was gasping for air.
Despite these symptoms, the most difficult part of my day was picking up the phone, not knowing what new hardships my clients will have to report.
Some days it is updates about a hunger strike or someone being put in segregation for leading it. Sometimes, it’s the person from the bed next to them getting all of their belongings, going to the medical unit, and never coming back. My clients tell me it feels like being a dog in an animal shelter, not knowing if their neighbor was adopted or euthanized.
Every day I hear scared voices with uncontrollable coughing and feverish chatter. “Please tell my family if I die,” they whisper to me, not wanting their fellow cellmates to hear.
Those in power continue to evade accountability or action. As we jump through bureaucratic hoops and submit motion after appeal after petition, people are getting sicker and more scared.
Think of the fears we feel on the outside, unable to see family and friends, confined to our homes. Now imagine being locked in a cell, with limited information coming through monitored and timed phone calls, a language barrier, and chronic diseases that make you more susceptible to the virus. Imagine being too scared to report your symptoms, no matter how severe, out of fear of being placed in quarantine and left to die.
Imagine being denied humanitarian release simply because of your immigration status.
Despite the constant ebb and flow of my symptoms, I could not stop advocating for the release of my clients. The fear of an immigration judge sentencing my client to death in their home country or in a detention bed compelled me to keep working.
My partner is a nurse who works with COVID-19 patients. One night, he came home in a better mood for the first time in weeks. A patient that he had cared for since she was first admitted to the hospital was finally going home. He said he realized that with this virus, deaths are quicker than recoveries. Now that he has seen a full cycle of disease, he has found hope. If he buckles down and does his job, more people can heal.
I wanted to end this with a similar message, but I am too overwhelmed by the virus to see the path to recovery. I am not just talking about COVID-19; I am talking about the disease of an immigration system that puts people in cages simply for fleeing violence or seeking a better life. What will our cycle of recovery look like? Will political leaders choose to do the right thing before too many people are left behind?
While the stress of continuing to work added to the cumulative effect of the virus on my physical being, fighting for the rights of others has also given me the spiritual strength and drive to recover.
The difference between a medical virus and this societal virus is that our immigration system is manmade. This means that the solution can also come from us, if we can harness the strength that comes from our shared humanity. Collectively, we must exert pressure on those in power. We must continue, in every possible way, to amplify the call to free them all.
Joelle Eliza M. Lingat is a detention attorney with the American Friends Service Committee. Coming from organizing roots, she actively works in and outside of the courtroom to #FreeThemAll.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.