Aileen Perilla / The New York Times

Prof. Juffer brings attention to COVID-19 infections in immigration detention centers.

February 26, 2021

Local Immigration Detention Center Experience Highlights Systemic Injustices

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Thirty detainees out of 260 have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Batavia Detention Center in Buffalo, where Ingrid Hernandez-Franco, a 31-year-old woman from El Salvador, is being held.

In the fall, Franco spoke over Zoom to students in “The Time and Space of Immigrant Detention in the U.S.,” a class taught by Prof. Jane Juffer, literatures in English. Franco detailed her harrowing experiences of seeking asylum in the U.S. — an attempt to escape from gang violence that targeted her for being a lesbian.

Franco had met Juffer, the director of the feminist, gender and sexuality studies program, when Juffer visited the Batavia Detention Center in January 2019. Since then, Franco’s story jumpstarted several projects to address the prevalence of experiences like hers. 

These issues have been magnified during the pandemic, with detainees at higher risk for COVID-19. In early December 2020, Franco and several other detainees were moved to Rensselaer County Jail in upstate New York — in an abrupt but precedent move. She was then transported back to the Batavia facility in early February. 

“It was very ugly. When the guards told me we were going to move, I said to myself, ‘Wow, with COVID?’” Franco told The Sun. “We had to get up at 3 a.m., I cried when they put handcuffs on our wrists and ankles with chains connecting them.”

Franco’s imprisonment conditions, including the transfer to the Rensselaer County Jail, highlight the systemic issues in the immigration detention process — and necessitate reform, Juffer said. The transport, like that Franco experienced, falls in a long line of human rights violations, Juffer continued.

“Immigration and criminality have come together in this really intense way, and the political rhetoric [surrounding it] has been insidious and hateful,” Juffer said.

Franco is one example of this structure: After fleeing El Salvador in December 2018, she found herself behind immigration detention bars and has been held captive in Batavia for the past two years. 

She was detained immediately after crossing the border — but she passed the credible fear interview conducted by an Immigration Customs Enforcement officer, confirming that she was in immediate danger when she returned to El Salvador. 

For that sole reason, Franco was allowed to make a case before a judge instead of being deported. However, the judge denied Franco’s initial appeal to the court in Buffalo.

“For political asylum, [the case must demonstrate] and prove prosecution based on your race, your religion, your national origin, your social grouping or political opinion,” Juffer said. “The judge and the Board of Immigration Appeals [argued what happened to Franco] was a bad actor and bad luck, but was not a political act.”

While immigration law in the past has acknowledged queer individuals as non-conforming social groups, it neglects to explicitly acknowledge persecution based on sexuality and gender, Juffer explained.

“One of the big injustices here is that [Franco] is, as a lot of people are, basically imprisoned, and not given the chance even to pay [bail],” Juffer said. 

Juffer further argued against the absurdity of American immigration detention law, citing the 1996 Illegal Immigrant Act, which sets forth a number of double standards and laws to keep asylees on the fringes of society.

Even while Franco remains in detention, Juffer has worked with her students and Engaged Cornell to ignite the Free Ingrid movement. These efforts have offered students insight to dismantle and bring attention to the current treatment of asylum seekers.

After meeting Franco and hearing her story last fall, Juffer’s students collected over 1,000 petition signatures to free Franco and created a website to dissect the criminalization of immigration in America. 

Speaking with Franco through Batavia video conferencing tools was transformative for her students, Juffer said. The class description maintained a connection between theory and practice, and hearing this first-hand story emphasized the people most affected by social injustices. 

“This [injustice] is happening to a lot of people,” Juffer said. “And the problem is structural.”