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Locals call for release of detained immigrants amid COVID-19 fears

  • Julie Zimmer speaks at a Lights for Liberty event in Peterborough in July 2019. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • A Lights for Liberty event in Peterborough last year. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 4/8/2020 4:19:08 PM
Modified: 4/8/2020 4:18:58 PM

Activists from the Peterborough Lights for Liberty Coalition are among the 546 petitioners calling for the immediate release of civilly-detained immigrants from the Strafford County jail, to protect them and the public from the spread of COVID-19. They sent the petition to Gov. Chris Sununu, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and multiple state and county officials on April 1 and had not received  a response as of Tuesday, according to organizer Laura Aronson, of Never Again Action New Hampshire.

Peterborough activist Julie Zimmer described the initiative as a “new landing place” for the Lights for Liberty Coalition, which merged with the statewide Never Again Action New Hampshire group in March.

The petition asks Governor Sununu and public officials to release asylum seekers and other civilly-detained immigrants from Strafford County jail and halt new admissions from ICE, return immigrants to their communities and families by empowering social-service agencies and supportive faith groups to do the work that will be needed, eliminate or sharply reduce immigrants’ unaffordable bonds, and remove those who are ill or suspected of having COVID-19 to a healthcare facility instead of solitary confinement.

The Strafford County jail maintains approximately 100 beds under contract with ICE (Immigration and Custom Enforcement) for immigrants detained in six New England states or transferred here from other detention centers.

The virus is especially dangerous to inmates and staff because social distancing is not possible in a correctional setting. Correctional facilities are not well-equipped to provide hospital-quality care or even burials, Aronson said.

“The civilly-detained immigrants in Strafford County Jail are not serving criminal sentences and are not a danger to the community. Many are asylum seekers exercising an internationally-recognized right. Most have family, friends and homes to shelter in place in the community,” she said.

“Jails housing crowds of immigrants are set to become incubators for COVID-19. When – not if – these tinderboxes explode, they are not equipped to provide hospital-quality care or even burials. Inevitably, the virus will wash back into the community through guards, staff and their families, exerting pressure on our hospitals and health care providers. Inevitably, the virus will infect the corrections officers, staff, and their families, endangering all the citizens of New Hampshire, and adding to the pressure on our hospitals. Because of the nature of this virus, action must be taken as soon as possible to protect our community before, rather than after, an outbreak occurs,” Aronson said.

The ACLU filed an emergency federal lawsuit on April 3 on behalf of Pedro Gonzalez Guarcas, a Guatemalan immigrant at the detention center.

Although there are no reports of COVID-19 cases in the detention center, a Strafford County Deputy Sheriff and an employee at the State Prison for Men recently tested positive for the virus.

More than a dozen organizations and faith groups are ready to work with the state and federal government to ensure the health and safety of released immigrants and that of their communities, Zimmer said. NHISN, the Immigrant Solidarity Network, includes sanctuary coalitions and congregations around the state are developing plans to house released immigrants who have no home to go to, Zimmer said, and the NH Conference of the Church of Christ has been providing post-detention support, including host homes, for more than a year.

The national Never Again Action organization was founded in 2019 by Jews motivated by their prophetic tradition and their history of oppression. Its goal is to prevent ICE, DHS, CBP, and the corporations that support them from doing business as usual. Activists in the New Hampshire chapter are diverse, including Jews and people from a wide range of religious backgrounds, Aronson said.


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