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Immigrants in Detention Centers ‘Sitting Ducks’ For COVID-19

Despite warnings from public health experts, ICE still holds nearly 35,000 detainees in close quarters.

Robin Urevich

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Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps the United States, social distancing is the new normal. But in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers – as well as in jails and prisons –  keeping a six-foot distance from others is all but impossible. Public health officials have said the lock-ups are tinderboxes for the spread of the novel coronavirus and have called for the release of detainees who don’t pose a public safety hazard. ICE has granted some releases, but immigrant rights activists say the agency hasn’t acted fast enough. ICE still holds nearly 35,000 detainees in close quarters.

“What we’re hearing is they’re sitting ducks,” said attorney Lisa Graybill of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “They’re not being given soap or sanitizer or PPE [personal protective equipment]. Guards are not wearing PPE.”

Graybill, along with attorneys for the Denver-based Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center and Disability Rights Advocates, with headquarters in Berkeley, Calif., are demanding that a federal judge act to ensure that ICE either protects its most vulnerable detainees from infection or releases them en masse.

The case will be heard in Riverside on April 13.
 


Public health officials have said ICE detention centers are tinderboxes for the spread of the coronavirus.


 
Those who work in immigration detention are also fearful – for themselves and the detainees, said one guard at the Stewart Detention Center in rural Southwest Georgia, one of the nation’s largest ICE lock-ups. The officer agreed to speak to Capital & Main on condition of anonymity several times in the last week.

“So many people are sick,” the officer said, describing efforts to help one detainee who said he’d been ill for five days. “I called medical. They refused to see him. They said they were short-staffed. I walked him there and he had a fever of 104. A lot of [detainees] had the same symptoms. A lot of them were in the medical lobby. They were calling emergencies all day over the radio. People were falling out. They took three or four detainees to the [off-site] hospital.”

The detention center is short-staffed, the guard said, because some employees are staying home. Others have felt pressure to report to work, either because CoreCivic supervisors demand it or because they need the money.

“I know this is a business, but at the end of the day, you have to have regard for human life,” the guard said.

Four Stewart Detention Center employees have tested positive for the virus, said Amanda Gilchrist, a spokeswoman for the private prison firm CoreCivic, in an April 9 email. CoreCivic operates the facility for ICE. Gilchrist said that 10 other CoreCivic detention center workers – six at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, and two each at the Houston Processing Center in Texas and the Elizabeth Detention Center – have also tested positive.
 


Detention center guard: “I know this is a business, but at the end of the day, you have to have regard for human life.”


 
As of April 10, 50 detainees at 17 detention facilities and one hospital have also received positive COVID-19 test results, ICE reports on its website, as have 15 ICE employees at detention centers. On April 10, ICE reported two detainees at the Stewart Detention Center had tested positive for COVID-19.

Cesar Garcia (not his real name) spoke to Capital & Main on April 2 just after his release from the Stewart Detention Center. He said some detainees were sick and many were scared.

Garcia, a Honduran citizen who is seeking asylum in the United States, will now press his case on the outside and fears retaliation if he used his real name in speaking out about detention conditions.

“We slept two feet apart from each other,” Garcia said, adding that there was barely enough space for a person to walk between bunks. Garcia said there were 68 people in his dorm, who were escorted to the chow hall together and who ate meals sitting elbow to elbow.

“There was no distancing at all,” Garcia said. Moreover, there was no hand sanitizer, and the only soap provided was in a dispenser on the bathroom wall. People were scared – and detention officers gave them no direction on how to keep themselves safe, Garcia said.

He said he doesn’t know why he was released, but he and his attorney both believe ICE determined that his underlying health conditions – diabetes and breathing problems – put his health at risk.

Garcia said he is happy to be free, but he said, “My heart is with my friends inside.”

On April 7, Garcia said, one of those friends called to say people in four of the detention center units were ill. But the line was disconnected, and Garcia didn’t learn any further details.

The ICE figures likely understate the COVID-19 infection rate in U.S. detention centers because relatively few people are tested based on CDC guidelines and because virtually all ICE detention centers are operated by outside contractors. Some 70 percent of detainees are confined in facilities operated by private firms, like CoreCivic, which have no obligation to report the number of employees who test positive. The rest are housed in county jails or other facilities.

A spokesman for the nation’s largest for-profit prison firm, the GEO Group, didn’t respond to Capital & Main’s email query about the number of its detention center employees who may have tested positive for the virus.

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ICE notes on its website that it follows Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for protecting “staff and patients” and for testing of detainees. ICE screens new detainees arriving with fever or respiratory symptoms or those who might have been exposed to COVID-19 and houses them separately, the site notes. ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations unit has encouraged detention facilities to place all newly arriving detainees under observation for 14 days before they are housed with others, its website notes.

But correctional health experts warn that these protections are insufficient. Scott Allen, a professor emeritus of clinical medicine at the University of California, Riverside, and Josiah Rich, who teaches medicine and epidemiology at Brown University and who directs The Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights, sent a March 19 letter to leaders of key congressional committees. Allen and Rich wrote that immigration detention is “an imminent risk to the health and safety of detainees, as well as to the public at large, that is a direct consequence of detaining populations in congregate settings.”

The two physicians, who serve as advisors to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, added, “It is essential to consider releasing all detainees who do not pose an immediate risk to public safety,” and noted ICE’s complete authority to release all those it holds in custody. Unlike the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which holds inmates on the orders of federal judges, ICE alone can determine whether to hold or release its detainees.

The Syracuse University-based Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse reported that as of July 2019, just one in 10 ICE detainees has a serious criminal conviction. Sixty-one percent of those held by ICE had no record of a criminal conviction at all as of March 2020.
 


Just one in 10 ICE detainees has a serious criminal conviction.


 
An ICE spokeswoman said in an email that as of April 1, the agency held 4,000 fewer detainees than it did March 1. The agency’s website notes that it is booking in 60 percent fewer immigrants than it did at this time last year, and said it has evaluated 550 people who were pregnant or older than 60 for release, and identified 160 it could set free. The agency says that it is continuing to evaluate additional detainees for release.

Meanwhile, individual attorneys say they and their colleagues have in recent weeks filed, and in many cases won, immediate release for clients who are at risk for serious illness or death if they contract the novel coronavirus, and expect more releases.

But SPLC attorney Lisa Graybill said she and her colleagues will argue for a system-wide approach when they argue their case before Judge Jesus Bernal in Riverside April 13. They’ll ask him to require ICE to identify all detainees nationwide with risk factors like older age or underlying health conditions, to conduct a comprehensive evidence-based assessment of medically necessary precautions that should be implemented to ensure the health and safety of those who are particularly at risk if they become ill with COVID-19. The lawyers seek the release of those individuals within a two day period if ICE cannot implement the protective measures in 24 hours. The attorneys further request that Judge Bernal appoint a special master to oversee the process.

“Anyone in those facilities or anyone who has a loved one in those facilities should be worried,” said Graybill. “It’s a public health disaster.”

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