It takes months' worth of planning for José Hernandez's parents to visit him in immigration detention.
The drive takes four hours and neither of his parents can drive. His father also needs permission to take time off work. But the biggest uncertainty has been whether the detention center will allow visitors at all.
"The inconsistency with the visitation guidelines has made it more difficult for my parents to see me," said Hernandez, who is currently held in a facility in Bakersfield, Calif.
Hernandez was convicted of assault in 2018 in California. While in prison he furthered his education and completed firefighter training, his lawyer says. But when he was released in 2021, he didn't get to go home — he was sent to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Mesa Verde Processing Center.
Hernandez was born in Mexico and was brought to the U.S. as a child. He has a green card, but deportation is still a possibility.
"I just want the chance to see my family and give them a hug before worse comes to worst: I have to leave the country I've called home for 29 years," he told NPR.
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Individuals held in immigration detention were barred from visits with relatives and friends for more than two years during the pandemic — far longer than federal prisons. In May, ICE lifted the ban, but immigrant advocates and people in detention centers argue that social visits have not been fully nor consistently reinstated.
There's a range of reasons why people are detained in ICE facilities. Some migrants are detained by Border Patrol agents or Customs and Border Protection officers after arriving at the U.S. border without proper paperwork. Others are arrested by ICE agents, often following a criminal conviction. Many are detained for more than a year while they await their fate in immigration court.
For Hernandez, his felony conviction falls under a category of crimes that can subject even green card holders to automatic deportation, according to his lawyer.
As of Nov. 14, 52 out of 113 ICE sites were listed as yellow or red status, meaning their COVID response includes temporarily restricting in-person visits.
An ICE spokesperson told NPR that health protocols are based on several factors, including the number of quarantine units, medical isolation rates, hospitalizations and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 community risk standards.
Immigrant advocates argue COVID restrictions aren't being implemented in good faith
Individual facilities also have the discretion to employ additional protective measures at any time to prevent the spread of COVID. But advocates for immigrants have raised concerns about the authority given to individual detention centers, most of which are run by private and for-profit companies, and whether judgments to restrict visitation access are made in good faith.
Earlier this month, Freedom for Immigrants and 139 other immigrant advocacy organizations asked the Biden administration to intervene and urge ICE facilities to offer in-person visits regardless of a facility's COVID status. They also said video calls for people in ICE detention should be free of charge.
"Even without visitation, the pandemic was still erupting inside detention centers," Laura Duarte Bateman, the communications manager for the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice, told NPR.
"We're tired of COVID being used as an excuse to not reinstate visitation," she added.
COVID-19 outbreaks have been a concern in ICE facilities throughout the pandemic and the agency has been under fire over the reported lack of soap, face masks and social distancing in some detention centers.
As of Nov. 7, nearly 30,000 individuals were held in ICE facilities and roughly 600 of them were in isolation or monitoring for testing positive for COVID.
According to ICE data, there have been several facilities in recent weeks that have implemented strict COVID restrictions despite reporting only a single case of the virus.
Hernandez said he understands that health and safety is a priority, but said that should not justify limiting visitation, which is crucial for the emotional and mental health of people detained.
"We're not in good hands," he said. "At the same time, we're deprived of visits with our loved ones, it's not right."
ICE says it offers several other forms of communication between detained people and their loved ones, including physical letters and video and phone calls.
The agency's policy states that virtual options should especially be ensured when social visits are restricted. But Duarte Bateman said that is often not the case because video calls can be costly. Hernandez says it costs $3.15 for 15 minutes. ICE didn't respond to questions from NPR about the cost of video calls.
Lack of access to in-person visits can also hinder immigration advocates from monitoring human rights violations, Duarte Bateman said. People in detention centers worry that phone calls and handwritten letters are being closely monitored by ICE officers and could lead to retaliation, she added.
Hernandez's mother, María Hernandez, told NPR that she was initially elated when ICE lifted its restrictions on social visits. But that excitement quickly dissolved when she realized reuniting would be more complicated than she anticipated.
"I want to see my son before the end of the year, I don't know how I'll do it. But I really hope me, his dad and him can all be together soon," she said.
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