COVID-19 in US Immigration Detention Centers


SEATTLE, Washington — As of July 9, there were 883 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in U.S. immigration detention centers. Unfortunately, only about half of the detainees have been tested. Many public health officials are worried that those numbers will drastically increase and overwhelm local hospitals.

Conditions Inside Detention Centers

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in U.S. immigration detention centers was in New Jersey on March 24, 2020. Prior to releasing the information, riots had already broken out at two separate detention centers. Detainees started both of them, demanding their release in order to protect themselves from the virus. On March 29, 2020, at least five detention facilities organized hunger strikes to protest the living conditions. Credible accounts of the conditions include no access to soap or hand sanitizer, overcrowding, lack of information about COVID-19 and ongoing transfers between facilities. Most detained immigrants are not in cells but rather among the staff and other detainees. This makes the spread of the coronavirus harder to contain.

In addition to the conditions, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities have a history of negligent medical care. One trans woman in the Aurora Detention Facility in Denver, Colorado, who is living with HIV, liver disease and hepatitis B, said ICE told her she was moving to a room with 17 other trans women. Some of these women had transferred from other facilities. Eight different nonprofits sent letters to leadership at the U.S. Department of Homeland and Security (DHS) following reports of the detention center healthcare quality for immunocompromised detainees. There are also reports of family detention centers that have hundreds of families exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, but no one has received treatment or testing.

Local Effects of an Outbreak

Following reports of ICE’s response to COVID-19 in U.S. immigration detention centers, two doctors sent a letter to the DHS in February 2020 and members of Congress in March 2020 detailing a “tinderbox scenario.” The letter described that, if an outbreak occurred in the detention centers, the cases from the facility combined with local cases among the general population could overwhelm the hospital. However, by releasing some detainees, the “tinderbox scenario” of a mass outbreak is less likely to occur.

While the rest of the country can social distance and restrict nonessential contact, detention centers are generally incapable of social distancing. Instead, they are a breeding ground for COVID-19. A study released on April 27, 2020, tested how far COVID-19 could spread with optimistic, moderate and pessimistic scenarios of transmission and its impact on local communities and hospitals. The study found that infection was likely to spread to 72% of individuals in 90 days in the optimistic scenario, and to nearly 100% of individuals in 90 days in the pessimistic scenario. The study also found that outbreaks in the optimistic scenario for a minimum of nine ICE facilities would still overwhelm local Intensive Care Unit (ICU) hospital beds within a 50-mile radius over a 90-day period.

ICE’s guidelines say that it will transfer those with severe symptoms to hospitals. However, the additional cases of COVID-19 in U.S. immigration detention centers would most likely overburden the local healthcare systems. In addition to the increased risk of congregated facilities, undocumented individuals are more likely than the general population to be uninsured and face additional stressors if at a higher medical risk for COVID-19. Since immigration detention centers hold many medically high-risk individuals, the spread of COVID-19 inside of the facilities could be very dangerous for those susceptible.

Systematic Release

Public health officials, doctors and the Former Acting Director of ICE John Sandweg have called on ICE to release all nonviolent civil detainees. By doing so, those left in the facilities would be able to practice social distancing. Those released would have ankle monitors to track them as they practice social distancing in the general public. ICE has released about 700 detainees on a case-by-case basis so far, mostly the elderly and immunocompromised.

In addition to releasing detainees, doctors are also calling for the immediate halting of all nonessential transfers. Evidence shows that many of the confirmed cases in immigration detention centers can be traced back to transfers. For example, a New York immigration attorney was fighting for the release of her client when ICE transferred the client and other detainees from New York and Pennsylvania to a center in Alvarado, Texas. Cases drastically increased from 0 to at least 42.

Although ICE is implementing social distancing measures inside the detention facilities and releasing low-risk migrants, doctors are saying the best solution to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in U.S. immigration detention centers is to release all detainees who do not pose an immediate risk to public safety. Seeing as hundreds of detainees have been released already, there is hope for further progress to keep individuals safe.

Jacquelyn Burrer
Photo: Flickr


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