Batavia, NY—The risk of exposure to COVID19 for immigrants incarcerated in the Buffalo Federal Detention Center, known as Batavia, increases by the day and the time is now to release all immigrants in Detention say immigration advocates. On March 12, one day after the World Health Organization declared COVID19 a pandemic, there was a transfer of 40- 52 people to Batavia, some of whom came from Bergen County where a corrections office tested positive for COVID19.
This news of exposure comes as advocates sound the alarm regarding the court in Batavia, which has remained fully open, further increasing the risk of exposure to all who must go to court. The in and outflow of the court leave Batavia at an even more heightened risk for infection. As recently as Wednesday the court refused telephonic appearances and castigated attorneys for not wanting to appear in person.
“Even under normal circumstances, people’s health suffers in detention and people with chronic illnesses worsen while detained in Batavia," said Jennifer Connor, Executive Director of Justice for Migrant Families WNY, based in Buffalo, NY. “It is not intended to be a place of health and Batavia is not equipped to handle a health crisis. The only way to protect both those detained and those who work there is to release everyone. And as we have all personally experienced during this crisis, access to phones and internet are vitally important and this is especially true for people in Batavia who are cut off and isolated in the first place. I fear for all those who are still detained. The public should not want this on their hands; the real solution is full release.”
Advocates in WNY and across the nation also call on ICE to allow free telephone and internet access during this crisis period. All detained persons were allowed one 5 minute phone call for free this week, and this shows that the detention facility has the power to create better, more humane conditions for everyone who is incarcerated there.
"If ICE will not release their detainees, then the very least they can do is provide free access to the internet and phones so people can communicate with their loved ones," said Meghan Maloney de Zaldivar Senior Manager of Member Engagement Western New York, New York Immigration Coalition. "As New York and the nation continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, every government agency must act as justly as possible. That includes treating immigrant New Yorkers in ICE detention with the humanity and dignity they deserve and shutting down the Batavia immigration courts now except in cases of emergency hearings."
"ICE should be adopting the least restrictive means to ensure the safety of all people in its custody," said Christina Fialho, co-founder and co-executive director of Freedom for Immigrants. "If ICE is unwilling to release people, they have an obligation to offer free phone calls to all people in immigration detention. In facilities that offer video visitation, these visits should be free until social visits are restored. If free phone calls and free video visitation is not implemented in the next 48 hours nationwide, I think it will be clear to all that ICE is not operating in the best interest of people in its custody."
“Anne Frank wasn’t killed in a gas chamber- she died of an infectious disease in the inhumane conditions of a concentration camp,” said Elle Herman, Organizer, Rochester Chapter of Never Again. “Detained people are more vulnerable than ever and need relief from the COVID19 crisis now. While ICE considers public health demands to release people, they must provide free calls and internet access to ensure transparency and accountability in all of their actions” said Elle Herman, an organizer with the group.”
The Rochester chapter of Never Again plans to issue their call to action for release and free calls for Batavia as well this weekend.
Even as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise by the hour, the hundreds of people detained in Batavia, NY still must pay unaffordable fees to reach out to their loved ones to check on their health and safety and to send messages of love. New York State and Erie and Genesee Counties have declared a state of emergency because of the quickly spreading and potentially fatal COVID-19 pandemic and everyone is being told to stay home and stay with their families. On Friday March 13, 2020 ICE shut down all social and most legal visitations in detention centers, which further isolates the people incarcerated inside. People who are in close quarters, incarcerated, right now, are at higher risk for spreading and catching COVID-19. Until ICE releases its detainees, everyone should be able to connect to their loved ones free of cost.
In line with detention centers nationwide, the Buffalo Federal Detention Center/ Batavia partners with private communications corporations to provide limited internet and telephone access to people who are detained there for civil immigration offenses or while they are going through asylum hearings. These corporations, such as Telmate at Batavia, charge exorbitant rates. From within the BFDC, it is 7 cents per minute to call inside NYS, 15 cents a minute to call a landline internationally and 35 cents per minute to call cell phones internationally. Video visitation/internet costs about $6 for a half hour. Telmate charges fees to families for putting minutes on their loved ones’ phone- a $5 fee for each $25 of phone money. People who are detained, often for many years, are able to earn at most $1 a day working inside the detention center and so must rely on others to help them pay for phone calls to family, friends, lawyers, community resources, embassies, and for internet access to message their family, friends, and to do any research. In addition, they need commissary funds to pay for basic hygiene products such as soap, and tissues, which are always in short supply, and are not supplied by the facility in sufficient amounts.