By Sukhdip Purewal Boparai
As a first generation Punjabi American and public health researcher, I’ve seen and experienced how adversity is present at every step of many immigrant families’ journeys, and the detrimental impacts it can have on health. Direct transfers to ICE detention adds yet another avoidable layer of harm to immigrant, refugee, and community health. And despite the global pandemic, loved ones continue to be transferred from prisons and jails to ICE detention, causing increased outbreaks of COVID-19. Now more than ever, direct transfers are an imminent public health crisis that compromise the well-being of immigrant communities across California. But these harms are preventable: Governor Newsom can prioritize the health of thousands of Californians and reunite families by issuing an executive order that stops direct ICE transfers.
In a report just released by Human Impact Partners, in partnership with the Asian Prisoner Support Committee and Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, we found that direct transfers have serious health implications for people who are transferred, their families, and our broader communities. In our research, we interviewed Southeast Asian American refugees and immigrants who were transferred directly to ICE from prison or jail, as well as their family members. Southeast Asian American refugee and immigrant communities in particular already face numerous layers of trauma and experience criminalization. One person we spoke with whose family member experienced direct transfer shared, “It’s heartbreaking to imagine having to go through all that you’ve already been through… and then have this happen to your family.”
People who experienced direct transfers described ICE detention as completely void of humanity and dignity — inedible food, cramped living spaces, and negligent medical care. They shared details about the initial shock of being detained, and the immediate declines in their health, “I got high blood pressure, I got high cholesterol right away.” Researchers have documented that when jails transfer people to immigration detention, a greater proportion of immigrants report fair or poor health. Some lose all hope, “I felt numb to everything. I felt discouraged. I felt humiliated. I felt like I was a disgrace.” The loss of control over one’s situation, and sense of helplessness is also linked with poor health. As a result, many people contemplated taking their lives, – and sadly, some have.
Family members on the outside are hurting too, as the absence of a loved one creates deep wounds. Loss of healthcare coverage, financial stress, food insecurity, and housing instability are just some examples of outcomes that families experience when a loved one is in detention. Families must survive in challenging ways: single parents attempt to earn a dual income to sustain a household, older children take on parenting siblings, and younger children also struggle. Research shows that children exhibit a range of mental and behavioral health impacts including anxiety and depression. A mother we spoke with shared how her son dealt with his father being in detention, “He would wait for him every night to have dinner with him. And when he stopped coming home, he thought he died.”
As Californians, we value justice, togetherness, and inclusivity. Stopping direct transfers from CA prisons and jails to ICE is a clear way to align our laws with our values. When families are together, they provide for one another — socially, emotionally, and financially. When families are close, they are healthier and children can heal, even after tremendous hardship. Governor Newsom needs to unite immigrant families back together. Legislators and medical professionals have already called for swift action. We ask Governor Newsom to put a stop to the health-harming practice of direct transfers to ICE.
Sukhdip Purewal Boparai, MPH is a senior research associate at Human Impact Partners, a national nonprofit organization based in Oakland, California. Human Impact Partners transforms the field of public health to center equity and builds collective power with social justice movements. Human Impact Partners conducted a research project in partnership with advocacy organizations Asian Prisoner Support Committee and Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus.