Eunice Cho, ACLU Attorney, on the Brutal Detention of Hundreds of Thousands of Immigrants: “History will not look at us kindly if we allow this sort of rights violation to continue”



The Michael Slate Show on KPFK Pacifica radio airs every week at 10 am Pacific Time on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles, a Pacifica Network station. Revolution/ features interviews from The Michael Slate Show to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theatre, music and literature, science, sports, and politics. On March 20, 2020, Michael Slate interviewed Eunice Cho from the American Civil Liberties Union Prison Project.

Michael Slate: I’m very, very pleased to be welcoming to the show, Eunice Cho. Eunice is from the ACLU and she’s with the ACLU Prison Project and we’re going to be talking with her about – there was a lawsuit filed, she recently filed a lawsuit against ICE in the Tacoma area. And we’re going to be talking about that with her. A statement on the ACLU website begins with: “Our immigration detention system locks up hundreds of thousands of immigrants unnecessarily every year, exposing detainees to brutal and inhumane conditions of confinement.” Well, first off, Eunice, welcome to the show.

Eunice Cho: Hi, thanks for having me on.

Michael Slate: It took me a little longer to get around this time because I’m sitting here worrying about, what do I touch, what do I not touch? It’s a rough time for any of this with what's going on and it’s really important that people like you are actually standing fast and doing what needs to be done.

Let’s jump into this because I want to have as long a conversation as I can. That statement on the ACLU website begins: “Our immigration detention system locks up hundreds of thousands of immigrants unnecessarily every year, exposing detainees to brutal and inhumane conditions of confinement…” Can you help us break that down because it’s kind of like, you can read that and it can be one of those things that just flow by you, what actually is being talked about here.

Eunice Cho: So, well, you know the immigration detention system locks up, as we said, hundreds of thousands of people in detention a year. And what many people don’t know is that there are immigration detention centers all around the country. There are immigration detention centers and jails in every state that hold people in custody for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. And what we know about these facilities is that in normal times, medical care, mental health care, are already terrible. There have been record rates of death in custody this year alone under the Trump administration. And we have heard reports from detainees themselves about just the difficulties in getting medical care, sanitation supplies, like soap, even before this COVID-19 outbreak took place. Now that COVID-19 is a huge part of our lives, our concern for people who are in custody is even greater. As many people have noted, including public health detention experts and law enforcement officials themselves have said, that the conditions in jails and prison and immigration centers basically provide a disaster in the making with respect to COVID-19. These are closed environments where people are sharing space very closely, they share bathrooms, eating together, sleeping together in the same room. And in a situation with COVID-19 where there is no vaccine, there is no known cure, there is no treatment for COVID-19 and the only public health strategy is to do what we’re all doing social distancing and good hygiene. Those are absolutely not available in detention centers and we worry what will happen – and this is not an if, but a when – when COVID-19 arises in one of these facilities.

Michael Slate: It’s very heavy to me actually, particularly when you’re putting it in the context that you’re putting in, which is one you can’t avoid and don’t want to avoid today. It’s very heavy and you’re breaking it down very well but again, just so people can get a taste of this, who are these people, how many people are locked up and why is it not necessary.

Eunice Cho: Well, the immigration detention system in the United States on average locks up about 40,000 people per day. This number goes up and down but at certain points in the Trump administration this number has reached as high as 56,000 people per day in custody. The people who are being detained are all being held on civil immigration charges, while they are awaiting adjudication of their immigration cases. They are either folks who have entered the United States and asked for asylum; they are people who are from our communities who have been caught up in police activity with respect to traffic stops, those types of things. They are people who are in our communities as well. So, these are who are locked up, they’re moms, dads, family members who are in these immigration detention centers and like I said they are located everywhere in the country.

Michael Slate: The argument that you make too is that this is not necessary, and I think it’s really important, because a lot of people especially today, I mean look, you’re looking at a situation where you have a lot of people who are – and it’s just remarkable, just listen to the radio and you hear all the quotes and the things coming out, the ideas – the wacked out assertions by the Trump Regime, and all of this stuff that is going on and none of this is true. And they’re throwing people in prison over this—and the constant targeting of nationalities from other countries. This is an incredibly important thing for people to understand and you’re arguing that it’s not necessary to actually do this and I think that’s something that would be very, very – a lot of people would say, wait a minute, maybe it is necessary, because who knows where these people are coming from. But tell us why it’s not necessary and then what are the conditions of people living in there. I mean you mentioned the huge number of people that are getting thrown into prison, I want to hear, basically what are the conditions they are living in because those two things go together.

Eunice Cho: Yeah, absolutely, I mean I think you’re absolutely right when you say that this is a system that doesn’t need to exist. Indeed in the 1970s there was no immigration detention system and in the early 1990s there were only about 6,000 people that were being held in immigration detention at any one time. This number has grown about ten-fold since that point in time and we really do need to ask ourselves if it wasn’t necessary back then, why is it necessary now. And we know that the growth in immigration detention really tracked along with the growth in mass incarceration that took place after the mid-1990s and over the last two decades the growth in immigration detention, this is especially a system that is particularly where a high percentage of beds are run by private prison companies and who have basically profited off of locking up immigrant detainees in confinement. I do think it’s very important for us to ask why this a system that exists in the first place when this is a relatively new phenomenon.

In terms of the conditions of confinement in immigration detention – we have conducted several studies and reports and documented abuses after talking with immigrant detainees, people locked in immigrant detention centers. And the things that we hear repeatedly include concerns with the lack of adequate medical care, adequate mental health care in these facilities. We have also heard of the over use of solitary confinement in immigrant detention centers. People getting locked up in solitary confinement for very minor issues or just because guards are retaliating against people for speaking out in support of their rights. We have seen a number of complaints about the lack of basic sanitation, not getting soap to clean oneself with, not being able to have your laundry washed. Very basic things with respect to basic hygiene that are especially necessary in a time like this. I think those are the types of abuses we hear regularly. We also heard about use of force in immigration detention facilities where people have complained about guards beating detainees. And I think one of the things about immigrant detention is that it is so remote and so few people actually have a chance to go and visit and see what it’s like. It becomes an environment where abuses can happen unchecked.

Michael Slate: You know it reminds me, as I was reading up on it last night, and reading some of the stuff that you’ve said around it, it’s very heavy and it does remind me a lot of—and I know people say, oh, come on, you can’t bring this up all the time. But actually unfortunately there is a lot of resemblance between it and what the Nazis did to Jewish people and other oppressed people in Germany—the kind of lock you up, you disappear, maybe you’ll live, maybe you won’t, who cares. And it’s kind of to me, there’s that kind of thing that’s getting put out and this ugly, ugly thing that’s getting popularized across the country. And I’m really concerned about this in the sense of people needing to know about it but they also need to know about it and say no, this can’t go on anymore.

We’re talking to Senior Staff Attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project and her name is Eunice Cho – see I got that out loud, I wanted to get it out very loud, Eunice. Now you filed a temporary restraining order against what’s going on in the prisons now?

Eunice Cho: Yes, so we have filed a lawsuit again ICE requesting the release of people who are medically vulnerable in the context of COVID-19. So, as I said earlier, we know that unfortunately at this point in time there is no vaccine, there is no treatment, there is no cure to COVID-19 and that has lead to extraordinary public health measures, basically requiring public social distancing where we are all trying to remain separated enough that we are not communicating, transmitting this disease. The problem is again in immigration detention centers and prisons and jails, these are environments where that just is not possible and we just have to think about really recent examples of these closed groups environments like nursing homes or cruise ships where the largest outbreaks of COVID-19 have taken place. And in those settings people had the benefit of having more autonomy to have social distancing and more accessibility to basic hygiene supplies like soap and water. This is not actually what can take place in an immigration detention center in the way that they are set up. Immigration detention centers and prisons and jails – people have very little autonomy, it is very difficult especially in crowded situations to be able to get the recommended 6 feet distance between people to person.

And we have heard multiple reports from many, many facilities that basic hygiene supplies like soap and water, sanitizers, those things are just not available for folks. And that all basically creates a disaster in the making. We know that there has been some transmissions and have heard reports of COVID-19 in immigration detention centers. There was a report only yesterday that a medical staff in a New Jersey ICE detention center tested positive for COVID-19. And it is only a matter of time, again as I said it is not an if, but a when COVID-19 enters these immigration detention facilities. And so people who are medically vulnerable to infection by COVID-19, it will not only mean serious illness or the risk of death for those individuals, but also can lead to an overwhelming impact on our local health care systems. If you have a congregate group environment where everybody gets sick at the same time, it could have a devastating impact in terms of the availability of resources for people and our health care system as it currently exist.

Michael Slate: Now, tell me this, because the courts responded to your suit and they denied it basically, right?

Eunice Cho: Well, they denied our motion for a temporary restraining order. The case continues. We still have the availability to request the courts to allow for release. It was an extremely limited provision in that the court emphasized that if any facts changed, I think the court acknowledged the rapidly changing and the serious nature of the COVID-19 crisis and that if things did change the court is very open to reconsidering its decision with additional information. Litigation will allow us to get more information from ICE about what is actually happening in the facilities, their testing capabilities and their treatment protocols within the facilities as well.

Michael Slate: Tell me this, this lawsuit is about the Tacoma, Washington camp, but it’s true everywhere, right?

Eunice Cho: That’s right.

Michael Slate: Yeah, and so what’s the scope of this, help people understand what the scope of this is.

Eunice Cho: Well, again, we focused our lawsuit in Tacoma, Washington because that, at that point was the largest outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States. Since then, of course, in just a matter of days, there has been an exponential growth of COVID-19 patients around the country. For this reason, there are a number of lawsuits that are like our lawsuit that we first filed in Seattle currently in the works as well.

Michael Slate: Tell me this, because one thing that bothers me is that you know, this thing about it being normalized. It really is. It’s sort of like so much can happen. I was reading books on Nazi Germany, figuring that there’s a lot we can learn from there in terms of what the hell was going on there and what’s beginning to happen here and happening here. And they said that Jews were carriers of disease and that justified what they were doing. And I was thinking about how this whole thing, what you’re telling us is something that should be really just bothering people 24 hours a day that this kind of thing is going on and it’s normalized. Let’s talk about that a little.

Eunice Cho: I think history will not look at us kindly if we allow this sort of rights violation to continue. In terms of our clients I worry about them, that the court will be too late to save somebody if they once do come down with COVID-19 and I think that is a tragedy that we are trying to prevent from happening at this point. I think everyone can understand the fear and anxiety that comes with what is happening day to day with respect to COVID-19. And when we look back at these types of tragedies and these types of moments that shape our society we will be judged for what we are doing to protect everyone in our society, including the most vulnerable. We will also be judged as to how tolerant we are and whether we are depending on the true science of what we know about the disease rather than reverting to language that is based on hate, that is based on stigma, and that is based on fear.

Michael Slate: You know, even as you’re talking, I keep thinking about all these that people I know, generally I would say, they’re good friends, they’re progressive, and they’re whatever. And I think that this idea that this can happen and people aren’t just in the streets outraged around this. These prisons, supposedly are now being turned into death camps and the courts are ok with it but so are many of the people who should be actually crying out, beating drums, running down the street, screaming and yelling, and saying, no, not in our name, we’re not going to let this happen, not at all, not ever. But it’s not happening.

Eunice Cho: Well, I think the recommendation right now is if you’re going to congregate in a public space you should probably stay 6 feet away from the next person. But that fact notwithstanding, I think there are still ways to express our outrage with respect to what is happening. We really encourage people to contact their local members of Congress to express their concern for what is happening in immigration detention and prisons and jails with respect to COVID-19 as this is a disaster in the making. We have the benefit right now of technology and other ways to stay in touch with folks in this period and we fully encourage people to do that. 

Michael Slate: You know, again, and I think it’s important what you’re saying, I just keep thinking again, behind all the talk, or at least some of the talk about pulling together as humans and whatever, the Trump Regime is bound to basically use all this, to escalate its ethnic cleansing process that it’s got going on. And I don’t hesitate to say ethnic cleansing because that’s really what I believe is what he is doing. The LA Times just a couple of days had a story about ICE raids in the times of the virus and with the enforcers of ethnic cleansing putting on surgical masks and giving each other elbow bumps before they went to ambush people on the way to work and disappear them. This is a very disturbing image.

Eunice Cho: Yeah, I think, again history will not look kindly on the tactics that ICE has employed to bring people into custody. I also saw that story and was heartbroken by it. There are stories of ICE agents going to people’s doors and using ruses, basically lying—saying they are police officers or doctors to try to gain access into people’s home and then presenting themselves as ICE officers ready to arrest and take people into custody. These are not tactics that work, they are not tactics that we should tolerate particularly in an environment where we need everybody’s participation, cooperation and help to defeating something as serious as COVID-19.

Michael Slate: Now if people want to follow what you’re doing, follow you, follow what is being done there, how can they get more information or find out a way to actually take part in this in some way.

Eunice Cho: Yeah, so please follow our website, it’s There’s information about this topic and many other important civil rights issues that we are dealing with in this particular moment in time. And we appreciate everybody’s support.

Michael Slate: OK, Eunice, I want to thank you very much for joining us today.

Eunice Cho: Thank you.

Michael Slate: Sure, take care, hopefully I’ll talk to you again and stay in touch because if this stuff gets hotter, I want to be out there making sure that it doesn’t go down silently.

Eunice Cho: Thank you.

Michael Slate: OK, take care now.

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The Coronavirus Pandemic
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