Warren, Booker, and Sanders Push DHS to Investigate Allegations That Officers Threatened Asylum Seekers With COVID-19 Exposure

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

A group of US senators is urging the Department of Homeland Security to investigate allegations that guards at immigration detention centers beat asylum seekers into submitting to their own deportations. “The allegations of violence and brutality against vulnerable refugees seeking safety here in the United States are unlawful and disturbing,” they write in the letter. 

Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) sent the letter Thursday to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and ICE’s Acting Director Tae Johnson. 

The senators’ concerns stem in part from a recent story by the Intercept that uncovered how guards at two ICE detention centers threatened asylum seekers with exposure to COVID-19 if they didn’t submit to a “voluntary” deportation. As the Intercept reported Feb. 6:

Three Cameroonian asylum-seekers locked up at the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center in Louisiana say that a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement guard threatened to expose them to Covid-19 if they failed to obey his orders and submit to a transfer. The guard made the threat clear, Clovis Fozao, one of the detained men, told The Intercept: If the detained migrants didn’t submit, they would be transferred to Bravo-Alpha, the detention unit where coronavirus-positive detainees are held in quarantine. 

“They were forcing us out of the dorm, pushing and dragging us,” Fozao said, explaining the altercation when the guards tried to force them to submit to the deportation. “They threatened to call the SWAT team. They said they were going to put all of us into Bravo-Alpha, which is for quarantine, where they keep everyone with coronavirus.” 

The senators wrote out 18 specific questions regarding multiple incidents in the past year. They ask for details about what ICE has uncovered in its own investigations, for audio and video of the alleged incidents, and specifics on how ICE ensures that those who are contracted to house immigrants in detention are following protocol to keep asylum seekers safe. 

“While abuse and neglect in ICE facilities has been endemic for years, these incidents have happened with disturbing regularity and severity under the authority of the New Orleans ICE Field Office in particular,” the letter reads. “ICE officials and contractors must be held accountable if they have refused to treat people in their custody consistent with basic human dignity and with DHS rules and regulations. Asylum-seekers should not have to choose between brutality at home or brutality while seeking asylum. They should have access to a safe, dignified, and lawful environment, including being protected from contracting COVID-19 during the global health emergency.” 

This alleged abuse was not exactly an isolated incident. “Over the past two years, similarly horrific abuses and conditions were reported,” the senators write, citing six stories by my colleague Noah Lanard. Noah has tracked at least a dozen incidents of guards pepper-spraying detainees, sometimes in response to simple requests for soap

The senators give DHS and ICE until March 11 to respond to their questions. 

AN IMPORTANT UPDATE

We’re falling behind our online fundraising goals and we can’t sustain coming up short on donations month after month. Perhaps you’ve heard? It is impossibly hard in the news business right now, with layoffs intensifying and fancy new startups and funding going kaput.

The crisis facing journalism and democracy isn’t going away anytime soon. And neither is Mother Jones, our readers, or our unique way of doing in-depth reporting that exists to bring about change.

Which is exactly why, despite the challenges we face, we just took a big gulp and joined forces with The Center for Investigative Reporting, a team of ace journalists who create the amazing podcast and public radio show Reveal.

If you can part with even just a few bucks, please help us pick up the pace of donations. We simply can’t afford to keep falling behind on our fundraising targets month after month.

Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery said it well to our team recently, and that team 100 percent includes readers like you who make it all possible: “This is a year to prove that we can pull off this merger, grow our audiences and impact, attract more funding and keep growing. More broadly, it’s a year when the very future of both journalism and democracy is on the line. We have to go for every important story, every reader/listener/viewer, and leave it all on the field. I’m very proud of all the hard work that’s gotten us to this moment, and confident that we can meet it.”

Let’s do this. If you can right now, please support Mother Jones and investigative journalism with an urgently needed donation today.

payment methods

AN IMPORTANT UPDATE

We’re falling behind our online fundraising goals and we can’t sustain coming up short on donations month after month. Perhaps you’ve heard? It is impossibly hard in the news business right now, with layoffs intensifying and fancy new startups and funding going kaput.

The crisis facing journalism and democracy isn’t going away anytime soon. And neither is Mother Jones, our readers, or our unique way of doing in-depth reporting that exists to bring about change.

Which is exactly why, despite the challenges we face, we just took a big gulp and joined forces with The Center for Investigative Reporting, a team of ace journalists who create the amazing podcast and public radio show Reveal.

If you can part with even just a few bucks, please help us pick up the pace of donations. We simply can’t afford to keep falling behind on our fundraising targets month after month.

Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery said it well to our team recently, and that team 100 percent includes readers like you who make it all possible: “This is a year to prove that we can pull off this merger, grow our audiences and impact, attract more funding and keep growing. More broadly, it’s a year when the very future of both journalism and democracy is on the line. We have to go for every important story, every reader/listener/viewer, and leave it all on the field. I’m very proud of all the hard work that’s gotten us to this moment, and confident that we can meet it.”

Let’s do this. If you can right now, please support Mother Jones and investigative journalism with an urgently needed donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate