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Will Gov. DeWine Acknowledge COVID-19 Vulnerability of Immigration Detainees?

Columbus, OH – Governor DeWine has hinted that a plan to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in Ohio jails and prisons may be coming–albeit weeks too late. Four county jails in Ohio–Butler, Morrow, Geauga, and Seneca–currently house federal immigration detainees (people being held due to civil violations). 

“There is absolutely no reason why immigrants need to remain in civil detention, as sitting ducks for COVID-19,” said Lynn Tramonte, Director of Ohio Immigrant Alliance. “And there is no reason why Governor DeWine cannot use his emergency powers, and the credibility he has built up already, to get federal and local jailers to reduce outbreaks of COVID-19 by letting immigration detainees go home to their families.” 

Here are a few things to watch for when Governor DeWine makes his announcement today:

  • Does Gov. DeWine acknowledge the existence of federal immigration detainees in local jails, and the need to do something to protect them from the virus? So far, DeWine has said nothing about these individuals, while national news outlets highlight the filthy conditions and lack of social distancing in these jails. Many of the folks we are talking about are Ohioans who have lived here for years, and have families and communities who are worried about them. They are being held on federal civil charges while their cases go through the courts, a process that can take years. And, the federal government has already proven it does not care about their health or safety, allowing even children to die of preventable illnesses like the flu.   
  • Does Gov. DeWine claim to have “no authority” to do anything about federal immigration detainees? We have seen this already in the criminal context: DeWine claiming that he is powerless to do much by way of release other than asking judges to look into a few cases. Don’t buy it. The state found a way to cancel the primary due to health concerns. Ohio jails and prisons are already a public health nightmare. Governor DeWine and Department of Health Director Amy Acton have been slow to acknowledge this ticking time bomb. Where there is a will, there is always a way.
  • The ACLU has started to lay out what Ohio and counties can do, and the Governor can do more to find a path forward if he wants to–or risk being held liable for illness and deaths. According to Eunice Cho, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU, local governments can refuse to continue to house ICE detainees, forcing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to make a decision about release. She also says that state and local governments may be held liable if immigration detainees become sick or die in their facilities.   
  • Leadership is part of the equation. Even if the primary decision-maker is typically another entity, whether that is a county jail or the federal government, the Governor’s influence is huge. Gov. DeWine has yet to even make a request to county officials or the federal government to release Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees, who pose absolutely no danger to society. There are many “alternatives to detention” that can be used successfully to ensure people continue to show up for their court cases. We’ve seen DeWine show leadership on other issues; his lack of leadership here is dangerous and glaring.

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Follow the Ohio Immigrant Alliance on Twitter @tramontela