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Hundreds Infected With COVID-19 in ICE Detention Centers

Amid a raging pandemic, immigrant detainees say they are double bunked in cells and that guards don’t wear protective equipment.

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Protester stands outside an ICE facility in Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal ruled on April 20 that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) must review every detainee with elevated COVID-19 risk and consider them for release. The order is the result of a request for action to shield detainees from the pandemic, which was filed in March by activist groups including the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center, Disability Rights Advocates and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In the order, Judge Bernal requires ICE to “identify and track” all detainees with COVID-related “risk factors.” The ruling also acknowledges multiple instances of wrongdoing related to the agency’s handling of the pandemic so far. “The Court has noted at least two probable serious failures to act: First, the monthlong failure to quickly identify individuals most at risk of COVID-19 complications and to require specific protection for those individuals; and second, the failure to take measures within ICE’s power to increase the distance between detainees and prevent the spread of infectious disease,” the order states.
 


Detainees only “started hearing about the virus through TV and through their loved ones, and not from ICE or the facility administrators.”


 
According to ICE’s website the agency’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) “convened a working group” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic “to minimize the spread of the virus.” The website explains that ICE is staggering meal times, segregating sick detainees from the general population and reducing crowding to stop the spread. ICE also claims it has already “released nearly 700 individuals” with elevated risk for severe cases of COVID-19. In a statement to Capital & Main, ICE wrote, “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is reviewing cases of individuals in detention deemed to be at higher risk for severe illness as a result of COVID-19. Utilizing CDC guidance along with the advice of medical professionals, ICE may place individuals in a number of alternatives to detention options. Decisions to release individuals in ICE custody occur every day on a case-by-case basis.”

However, the complaint against ICE tells a different story. With more than 30,000 people in ICE custody nationwide, ICE has, as of April 28, 425 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among detainees, plus an additional 36 cases among its employees working in detention centers. Multiple plaintiffs stated that by March 24, they still had not been briefed by staff on COVID-19. “They started hearing about the virus through TV and through their loved ones, and not from ICE or the facility administrators,” said Elizabeth Jordan, director of the Immigration Detention Accountability Project at the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center.

“We’re hearing from our clients that they’re still double bunked in cells, that they’re still moving in groups out to the cafeteria or out to the medical unit. We’re hearing about guards not wearing protective equipment,” Jordan added.
 


Detainee: “We cannot even be two feet away from each other. So whatever you breathe is what I breathe.”


 
In addition to the lax precautions described in the complaint, the very nature of detention centers makes stopping the spread of disease extremely difficult. “As the rest of the world implements social distancing, it’s impossible in the context of ICE detention,” said Stuart Seaborn, managing director of litigation at Disability Rights Advocates. Jordan told Capital & Main, “It is very clear that ICE needs to be releasing people, and we think that this order is a first step in that direction.”

According to Anthony Alexandre, currently in custody at ICE’s Otay Mesa Detention Center, where 75 prisoners and eight employees are sick, detainees are held in close quarters and cannot practice social distancing. “We cannot even be two feet away from each other. So whatever you breathe is what I breathe,” he said. (A previous Capital & Main article detailed the conditions inside ICE facilities that make them conducive to the spread of coronavirus.)

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CoreCivic, a private contractor that runs a number of ICE detention centers, including Otay Mesa, claims the company is taking steps to mitigate the spread of coronavirus at its locations by encouraging social distancing, providing masks and limiting movement within facilities. CoreCivic’s director of public affairs, Amanda Gilchrist, also said that staff began “separating high-medical-risk detainees” at Otay Mesa before any cases were confirmed there. “[O]ur company will continue to adapt our practices and policies in accordance with guidance from health experts to ensure the health and safety of our employees, those in our care and our communities,” said a statement from Gilchrist.

The order gives ICE 10 days from the date of the ruling, or five days from the date of an individual’s detention, to log each detainee with health factors that could increase susceptibility to COVID-19. Although there isn’t a clear sense of how many people the ruling might apply to, the plaintiffs estimate it to be in the thousands.

The lack of data on the number of detainees with health risks, Seaborn said, is part of the problem. Seaborn points to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. “Under those requirements, if you are running a detention center . . . you have an affirmative obligation to identify disability-related needs, track those needs and then accommodate those needs.”

The COVID-19 pandemic may have sparked this particular complaint, but it stems from a larger class action suit regarding the treatment of disabled individuals in ICE detention. Filed by the same groups months before the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in China, the complaint alleged that 15 individuals in ICE custody across the nation were denied appropriate care for a range of mental and physical health issues, including diabetes, cerebral palsy and schizophrenia.

“All of this was going on in the context of ICE detention prior to COVID-19,” said Seaborn. “One of the first things we heard from folks on the ground was if we’re having trouble getting access to care when there’s no pandemic, we can only imagine what it’s going to be like in the context of a pandemic.”

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Attorney Jared Davidson of the Southern Poverty Law Center said ICE’s approach to medical care has long been flawed: “Even before COVID existed, ICE’s medical system was broken . . . and so COVID is straining that already broken system.” Davidson points out that in addition to the disability laws protecting detainees, the latter have constitutional rights. “Just because individuals are immigrants doesn’t mean that they are not protected by the Constitution and also federal statutes. The Constitution affirmatively provides individuals in detention with a number of different rights, including the right to adequate medical care.”

More lawsuits related to the spread of the virus in ICE facilities are emerging as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. This week, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of San Diego filed a similar class action lawsuit calling for the release of vulnerable detainees from Otay Mesa to prevent overcrowding and slow the spread of coronavirus.

Although these cases focus on detention centers, Elizabeth Jordan pointed out that the implications are much broader. “These are places where people cycle in and out of the community,” she said. “If there is an outbreak in a detention center—and we’re seeing this in the cases ICE is reporting—the outbreak grows exponentially.

“There’s a really shocking curve once an outbreak starts, and that’s going to really strain community medical resources.”

Robin Urevich contributed reporting to this story.


Copyright 2020 Capital & Main

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