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Social Justice

Immigrant rights groups say ICE's no visitation policy taking toll on detainees’ mental health

ICE Detention Center
Ted S. Warren/AP
A detainee waits in a holding area during a media tour at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, in Tacoma, Wash.
Updated: May 11, 2022 at 4:54 PM PDT
ICE announced visitation at detention facilities will resume, including the facility in Tacoma.

Due to the pandemic, it’s been more than two years since families and friends have been able to visit loved ones in person at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in Tacoma.

ICE suspended visitations at all detention facilities in early 2020 and has kept that policy in place.

Now, national and local immigrant rights groups – such as Advocates for Immigrants in Detention Northwest and La Resistencia – have started to push back, demanding that ICE open up detention facilities so that detainees don’t continue to miss out on opportunities to see anyone on the outside, for months, or possibly years, depending on how long their immigration case drags on.

More than 20,000 people are currently in immigration custody in the U.S. Close to 300 are at the one ICE detention facility in Washington state.

Visitations at federal and state prisons have largely resumed. Last year, for example, the Washington state Department of Corrections determined it was safe to reinstate visitations.

But those who want to talk to loved ones in ICE detention must still rely on old-fashioned phone calls or video.

ICE Detention Center
Ted S. Warren/AP
A detainee talks on a pay phone in a residential pod during a media tour of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019, in Tacoma, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Maria Leonides Perez Bahena lives in Kent. She says her 32-year-old son Santiago has been in ICE detention in Tacoma for more than two years.

While she waits for the courts to decide her son’s fate, she remains unable to see him. And Santiago can’t see his own son. It’s all having a psychological impact, she says.

“He sounds very stressed and depressed when he calls me,” she said in a recent interview in Spanish, referring to her son Santiago.

She also says the video chats she has with her son are sketchy, with the signal often cutting out.

Immigrant rights groups say the toll of isolation on detainees' mental health is too high. They are demanding that ICE change the visitation policy at the federally run immigration centers by following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for correctional and detention facilities.

Detainees with lawyers are allowed to meet them in-person, but many lack representation.

Some groups, such as Advocates for Immigrants in Detention Northwest, have launched a letter-writing campaign directed at the Biden administration, asking that visitations resume.

When asked whether the visitation policy will change, a spokesman for ICE said the agency is currently reviewing its policies and may update them soon.

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