Migrant Detention and COVID-19: Pandemic Responses in Four New Jersey Detention Centers

Sarah R. Tosh
Rutgers University–Camden

Ulla D. Berg

Kenneth Sebastian León

Editorial credit: Julian Leshay / Shutterstock.com

Migrant Detention and COVID-19: Pandemic Responses in Four New Jersey Detention Centers


On March 24, 2020, a 31-year-old Mexican national in Bergen County Jail, New Jersey, became the first federal immigration detainee to test positive for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). By April 10, 2020, New Jersey had more confirmed COVID-19 cases among immigration detainees than any other state in the nation. This article examines the relationship between COVID-19 and processes of migrant detention and deportation through a case study of New Jersey — an early epicenter of the pandemic and part of the broader New York City metro area. Drawing on publicly available reports and in-depth interviews with wardens, immigration lawyers, advocates, and former detainees, we describe the initial COVID-19 response in four detention facilities in New Jersey. Our findings suggest that migrant detention and deportation present distinct challenges that undermine attempts to contain the spread of COVID-19. We provide testimonies from migrant detainees who speak to these challenges in unsettling personal terms. Our interviews highlight the insufficient actions by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to contain the spread of the pandemic and a troubling lack of due process in immigration court proceedings. Based on these findings, we argue that reducing the number of migrants detained in the United States is needed not only in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic but also as a preventative measure for future health crises. Reductions can be achieved, in part, by reforming federal immigration laws on “mandatory detention.”


Author Names

Sarah R. Tosh, Ulla D. Berg, Kenneth Sebastian León

Date of Publication April 5, 2021
DOI 10.1177/23315024211003855


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