Alien Advocates Flipping the Script on Immigration Detainees and COVID-19

Over the last few weeks, the mainstream media has been filled with calls to release detainees being held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in order to halt the spread of the Novel Coronavirus. While everyone would like to see a rapid end to the current public health emergency, these pleas are at best misguided. At worst they represent the cynical exploitation of a crisis to advance the agenda of the open borders lobby.

In the United States, detention is a tool for ensuring compliance with the rule of law. People who violate criminal statutes face an extended loss of their liberty in the form of a punitive prison sentence. Individuals who violate civil laws may be detained until they either comply, or are forced to comply, with a court order.

While an individual subject to detention or imprisonment retains certain fundamental rights, being freed whenever there is a threat of communicable disease isn’t one of them. The fact that lawbreakers have been incarcerated means that they have violated the law in such a manner that society’s collective safety becomes more important than their individual liberty.

The cries to release immigration detainees, lest they contract an illness in the regimented confines of a correctional institution, flip the script. They imply that society’s collective interest in being protected from law-breakers is less important than the individual rights of the scofflaws. This is simply not the case.  While we have an obligation to protect immigration detainees from COVID-19, to the greatest extent possible, we have no obligation to ignore their offenses and set them at liberty because they might become infected.

To do so would be ludicrous. As it is, vast numbers of immigration lawbreakers who are released on their own recognizance disappear into the interior of the United States and fail to appear for any further immigration proceedings. Any aliens released from immigration detention in the amidst the chaos of the current public health crisis will, in effect, be granted de facto amnesty from our immigration laws, as they will evaporate into the vast alien underground, never to be heard from again. This is especially true of those who are detained subject to a final order of removal, pending actual deportation.

In addition to attempting to make victims out of perpetrators, the calls to furlough detained foreigners are hypocritical. Even as alien advocates are clamoring for the release of foreign detainees, they are simultaneously claiming that migrants at liberty in the United States are among those most vulnerable to COVID-19 infection. This, the open borders agitators claim, is because many poorer immigrants lack health insurance and/or access to healthcare. And, the argument goes, due to their poverty, those same migrants must continue to work in jobs that will potentially lead to coronavirus exposure.

However, if this were true, wouldn’t detained aliens be better off than their free compatriots? While those subject to detention must contend with close conditions, they have access to 24/7 healthcare, at no charge. And they are living in a regimented environment where preventative measures, including isolation, can be implemented rapidly and efficiently by detention center authorities.

Finally, one key factor that is being ignored by those calling for the release of immigration lawbreakers is the fact that detained aliens’ loss of liberty is triggered by their own behavior. They chose to engage in activity that violated the rule of law. Inherent in that choice is an element of risk – the risk of incarceration, the risk of deportation, and the dangers that accompany both temporary detention and removal from the U.S. When the open borders contingent asks law-abiding Americans, who also live in fear of COVID-19 infection, to insulate foreign law-breakers from both the threat of disease and the consequences of their disrespect for our immigration laws, it has gone a bridge too far.

About Author


Matthew J. O’Brien joined the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in 2016. Matt is responsible for managing FAIR’s research activities. He also writes content for FAIR’s website and publications. Over the past twenty years he has held a wide variety of positions focusing on immigration issues, both in government and in the private sector. Immediately prior to joining FAIR Matt served as the Chief of the National Security Division (NSD) within the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate (FDNS) at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), where he was responsible for formulating and implementing procedures to protect the legal immigration system from terrorists, foreign intelligence operatives, and other national security threats. He has also held positions as the Chief of the FDNS Policy and Program Development Unit, as the Chief of the FDNS EB-5 Division, as Assistant Chief Counsel with U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement, as a Senior Advisor to the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman, and as a District Adjudications Officer with the legacy Immigration & Naturalization Service. In addition, Matt has extensive experience as a private bar attorney. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in French from the Johns Hopkins University and a Juris Doctor from the University of Maine School of Law.

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