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No More Normal: Human Rights On ICE

fronteristxs and Anonymous, Untitled
Intervention on a sculpture at the New Mexico state capital

When President Trump and ICE got in on the act of separating families and locking kids in cages, it spurred a public outcry. Millions of people were appalled that the land of the free would treat people in such a manner—especially people who were counting on the United States to provide safety, as they were often fleeing life-threatening situations. As usual in this country, the news cycle changed, and a majority of the public stopped talking about it. Then COVID-19 came, and the call to release detainees has picked up again, a call to save lives, a call to treat people like humans. As the pandemic continues to dominate our lives, the threat of coronavirus spreading in detention centers became a reality. What's not real: the response from ICE and the federal government. In episode 5, we don’t just look the dire situation for the people, but ask what, if anything, can be done about it.

Juan Carlos Peña from Cuba has been in ICE detention for a year in Cibola County Correctional Center, which is run by the corporation CoreCivic in Milan, N.M. He’s 51 and has asthma, and minutes before he spoke with reporter Yasmin Khan, he found out his latest appeal for release was denied. New Mexico’s Department of Health reported 314 cases of coronavirus cases in the Cibola lockup as of Friday, Aug. 14. The compound in Milan, N.M. houses federal prisoners, state inmates and ICE detainees.

Arifa Raza is an attorney with the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center. She tells us many cases are at a standstill during the pandemic, and the mental health of clients is declining. It can be hard to get ahold of clients, she says, and when they do speak, it’s over the phone, so they may not feel as comfortable raising concerns as they would in-person.

We hear from Sen. Tom Udall and Rep. Deb Haaland about a lack of accountability for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and whether Congress could intervene by defunding ICE. They also talk about the fragility of our democracy as the election approaches, and the signs we’re seeing today from President Trump and his administration, like human rights abuses and law violations behind the walls, and moves ahead of the election that echo dictatorships elsewhere in the world.

For more on that, Professor Kency Cornejo gives us the context and recent history on the U.S. involvement in Central American countries—funding civil wars and training brutal tactics—that gave rise to dictators and transnational gangs and caused people to flee for the U.S.-Mexico border. Cornejo teaches contemporary art in Latin America at the University of New Mexico, and she also offers information about how artists push back under totalitarian regimes.

Olmeca is an artist, activist and scholar from L.A. and Mexico, who generously let us use his song on this episode. “Define” comes from an album of the same name released about a year ago.

We check in with Daniel Caudillo, a lawyer in El Paso, Texas, who represented in trial last week a client who’d been diagnosed with COVID-19. He says ICE is transferring people from facility to facility, which could spur the spread of the virus through the system around the country and obscure an accurate count of coronavirus infections.

Jackie Stevens is a professor at Northwestern University and the founding director of the Deportation Research Clinic. She offers a history of the development of ICE detention, and how the poor prison-like conditions created by private companies is a pretty recent development in American history.

KUNM’s News Director Hannah Colton brings us the latest on the fight to get public money out of private ICE detention in New Mexico. Educators and immigrant rights advocates have been urging the New Mexico Educational Retirement Board to drop investments in CoreCivic and GEO Group, corporations that run prisons and detention in the state.

Bonnie Arzuaga is a physician and scientist, and the co-founder of Doctors for Camp Closure, a nonpartisan group of more than 2,000 doctors and health care professionals. She explains the dangers of outbreaks in ICE detention and the threat they pose to surrounding communities.

Finally, Allegra Love from the Santa Fe Dreamers Project speaks of how racism is at the core of this issue.

Statement from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement: ICE would not do an interview, but spokesperson Leticia Zemarripa provided this statement via email: "Since March 11, ICE has screened individuals for elevated temperatures and symptoms associated with COVID-19 prior to a removal flight or transfer. Any detainee with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher (99 degrees or higher starting April 22) was immediately referred to a medical provider for further evaluation and observation. In an effort to avoid removing aliens with active COVID-19 cases, on April 26, ICE began testing some aliens in custody and prior to removal. Where DHS/ICE deems detainee testing is warranted/appropriate by specific bilateral agreement, ICE coordinates with foreign governments to prioritize testing of detainees per evolving operational considerations. When an individual does not pass the mandated temperature/medical screening (or tests positive), prior to a removal flight, they are returned to ICE detention facilities and cohorted separate from the rest of the detention population in accordance with CDC guidance."

The agency also says all detainees are tested upon intake and monitored for 14 days, and they get a comprehensive medical exam within those first two weeks. All cases are medically cleared before transfers or removals, according to ICE. 

Next Week: Semesters are beginning everywhere despite the pandemic, and we’re diving in. Tune in for an episode about education

No More Normal is brought to you by the same crew behind YNMG. Hear the show on KUNM’s airwaves Sundays at 11 a.m. or find it wherever you get your podcasts.

Special thanks to:

  • Olmeca, for sharing his song “Define” with us for this episode.
  • Benjamin Eaglin for reading the translations.
  • Jazztone the Producer, Cheo, Dahm Life, Fresh Air, A. Billi Free, Flo Fader and Oh Lawd Records for providing music to our show. Khaki, Pope Yes Yes Y’all and Bigawatt composed some of the show’s themes.
  • fronteristxs and Anonymous for the artwork for this episode
  • Ty Bannerman, Taylor Velasquez, Kaveh Mowahed and Nash Jones for the editing help.
  • Hannah Colton and Yasmin Khan for their reporting.
  • And always, all of our guests for sharing their stories, lives and perspectives.

No More Normal is brought to you by Your New Mexico Government, a collaboration between KUNM, New Mexico PBS, and the Santa Fe Reporter. Funding for our coverage comes from the New Mexico Local News Fund, the Kellogg Foundation and KUNM listeners like you, with support for public media provided by the Thornburg Foundation.


Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.
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