July 27, 2020; Time

They are calling it “Sophie’s choice”: the impossible decision detained refugee parents are asked to make, of either keeping their children with them behind bars (at the risk of contracting COVID-19) or handing them to family sponsors and be perhaps forever separated. It’s an inhumane decision no one should have to make.

In a system run by billionaire for-profit companies paid by our tax dollars, immigrant children and their parents wait for their asylum cases to be heard, behind bars. Since the onset of the pandemic, immigrant lawyers and organizations have been working nonstop to guarantee the release of families from detention centers that have become death traps. They had a win, and a major setback.

Citing unhealthy conditions, a federal judge in California ordered the release of roughly 120 children from ICE detention facilities in Texas and Pennsylvania by July 27. In her motion, Judge Dolly M. Gee declared, “The Court is not surprised that COVID-19 has arrived at both FRCs [Family Residential Centers] and ORR [Office of Refugee Resettlement] facilities, as health professionals have warned all along that individuals living in congregate settings are more vulnerable to the virus…The FRCs are ‘on fire’ and there is no more time for half measures.”

But a second judge in Washington DC ruled on July 29 against a motion to release parents and children together. Now children like Lucy, who was 14 months old when placed in prison and learned to walk and talk inside the walls of the South Texas Family Residential Center, is at risk of being separated from her mother or getting sick with coronavirus.

According to a Washington Post editorial, there are 4,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases inside ICE facilities, infecting detainees and employees alike, and although ICE has released some 1,400 at-risk people (900 of its own accord), so much more needs to be done. “To continue detaining nonviolent detainees as the virus tightens its grip on ICE facilities is pointless and dangerous,” reads the op-ed.

Dr. Sally Goza, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, is well aware of the dangers posed to these families, as she explains in an op-ed for CNN:

They are confined in conditions that exacerbate the potential spread of Covid-19. They sleep in shared sleeping conditions, eat in communal cafeterias, use shared bathrooms, and lack frequent access to hand-washing stations and cleaning supplies. The lack of adequate medical care for children in these facilities has been well-documented. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, physicians reported seeing detained children suffering from skin infections, boils and dehydration. Because a court has not ruled that parents need to be released with their children, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has apparently decided to keep families locked up together in unsafe conditions or ask parents to separate from their children. Neither of these options is acceptable.

Advocates know ICE has the legal authority to release families together. That’s why they have launched the #FreeTheFamilies and #SafeAndTogether campaigns to pressure ICE leadership to take immediate steps of releasing immigrant children safely with their parents. There is abundant documentation of the psychological and development harm done to children, particularly refugees, who are separated from their parents, so they want to avoid a repeat of last year’s cruel family separations at all costs.

ICE has been under increasing pressure lately, particularly after the release of the documentary Immigration Nation on Netflix, which avoided censorship from the White House. Directors Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau embedded with ICE police to show a system of increased bureaucracy and inhumanity where refugee families are repeatedly victimized and traumatized. It is a senseless system that displayed its worst aspects under the current administration but developed slowly—for the worse—under both Republican and Democrat presidents. The documentary shows a system where cruelty, not empathy, is rewarded, as ICE officers are increasingly oiling the gears of both human trafficking and the prison industrial complex.

Lucy and her mother, Maria, had to quarantine in their cell for two weeks after coming into contact with a guard that tested positive for COVID-19. “Being locked up isn’t a way to live a life,” said Maria to Time’s reporter. “[Lucy] doesn’t know what it’s like to live out there, how it feels to see a city, or streets, or the cars going by. For us that would be something really beautiful to see—we aren’t hurting anyone, we just want to be free.”—Sofia Jarrin-Thomas