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Residents of Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and the Washington D.C. area will see billboards across their states and districts for four weeks calling on the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency to stop detaining families who came to the United States seeking safety. As part of a campaign to free people from ICE detention, human rights organization Amnesty International USA chose today to target ICE and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to call on the agencies to free families and children, following in-depth research into immigration detention facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Billboards that read, “We were searching for safety and they locked us away: demand ICE free the families” were launched in Philadelphia, blocks away from the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, City Hall, and the ICE Field Office that handles the detention of families held in its Berks County Residential Center in Leesport — as well as in San Antonio, about one mile from the ICE Field Office that is responsible for the families detained in the South Texas Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, and about five miles from the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas. Additional billboards that read, “We came here for protection and they took away our freedom: demand ICE free the families”, and “We were looking for a home and this is where they’ve left us: demand ICE free the families” were posted along the expressways leading into the Dilley and Karnes facilities.

The billboards confront viewers with a black and white image of a child’s hands behind chain links, with the chain links each featuring the names of dozens of children and their parents currently detained in Texas and Pennsylvania. 

The U.S. government has held children— for weeks, months, and in some cases, years — longer than is permissible by international law. The government has failed to explain why it refuses to exercise its discretion to release parents with their children, particularly as it is well-established that detention is not in the best interest of a child. Trucks with the same artwork were also sent on routes in Washington, D.C. passing by the White House, DHS and ICE headquarters, the U.S. Capitol, and the National Mall, with several messages on the back and sides reading: “We were looking for a home and this is where they’ve left us: demand Chad Wolf free the families”.

“Kids belong with their families in safe homes and conditions, not locked away without their freedom for months or years on end, especially as a pandemic threatens their very lives,”

said Denise Bell, the researcher for refugee and migrant rights at Amnesty International USA and author of several reports into the detention of families and children in the United States.  “ICE has the power to free the families but chooses not to. We’re using the tool we all have at our disposal: shining a light on this dangerous injustice and letting detained families know that we will not give up until every single family is freed.”

Ciara Macmullen, a youth activist in Philadelphia, said: “I felt the destructive actions of ICE firsthand after one of the families in my neighborhood was deported. Families seeking welcome and community in this country deserve acceptance, not imprisonment.” 

Throughout the months of September and October, Amnesty International USA members like Ciara throughout the country will call, write letters, and email ICE each week, pressuring the agency to free all families. Members are also placing yard signs in front of their homes to demonstrate solidarity and welcome to the detained families seeking to live in safety and freedom in their communities. 

Background and context

The United States has the largest immigration detention system in the world, with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) holding over 21,000 people in nearly 200 facilities across the country. Amnesty International documented the substandard health care and inadequate conditions of ICE facilities, including failure to adequately provide soap and sanitizer, protective or cleaning supplies, COVID-19 education, introduce physical distancing, or halt the unnecessary transfers of people between facilities in the interest of public health. Dangerous conditions have placed at heightened risk those that may contract and become severely ill or die from COVID-19. Yet, under these same conditions, parents were presented by ICE with unconscionable – and unnecessary – choices: either to separate from their kids or to stay together in detention, with no idea when they would be freed.  

In August, following advocacy efforts by Amnesty International USA and family attorneys, ICE freed two families from detention. Their release demonstrated that ICE has the power and the discretion to release families together from detention. Amnesty continues to advocate on the cases of Ana* (22) and Victoria* (4), Marilin* (31) and Yunior* (11), and Juana* (45) and Norma* (4) — detained in Dilley, Texas, for over a year after fleeing Honduras for their safety.

More:

Human Rights Organizations Urge Court to Safeguard Children’s Rights and Family Unity (Amicus Brief, August 31, 2020)

Coalition Demands Release of Trump Administration Documents on the Detention of Families During the COVID-19 Pandemic (FOIA, August 4, 2020)

First COVID-19 death in immigration detention a result of continued dehumanization of people by ICE (News, May 6, 2020)

Governments must halt dangerous and discriminatory detention of migrants and asylum seekers (News, April 2, 2020)

Leading NGOS Call on ICE to Stop Family Separation (July 17, 2020)

Family Separation 2.0: “You aren’t going to separate me from my only child.” (Research, May 21, 2020)

‘We Are Adrift, About to Sink’: The Looming Covid-19 Disaster In United States Immigration Detention Facilities (Research, April 2020) 

Update to Amnesty International Report on COVID-19 in US Immigration Detention (Research, August 2020)

No Home for Children: The Homestead ‘Temporary Emergency’ Facility (Research, July 17, 2019)

‘You Don’t Have Any Rights Here’: Illegal Pushbacks, Arbitrary Detention and Ill-treatment of Asylum-seekers in the United States (Research, October 11, 2018)

Contact Mariya Parodi at [email protected] for more information. Artwork files of the billboards are available at this link and photos and video of the billboards and trucks will be added. Spokespeople and youth activists are available for interviews in Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C area.