COVID-19 in U.S. Immigration Detention Centers

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SEATTLE, Washington — As of May 16, there were 1,201 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in U.S. immigration detention centers. Unfortunately, only 2,394 detainees out of more than 26,000 have actually 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 Mar. 24. Prior to releasing the information, detainees had already started riots at two separate detention centers, demanding their release in order to protect themselves from the virus. On Mar. 29, detainees from at least five detention facilities organized hunger strikes to protest the conditions inside the facilities. 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 interact with the staff and other detainees. This makes it harder to contain the spread of COVID-19.

In addition to the conditions in the facilities, ICE facilities have a history of negligent medical care. One trans woman was living in the Aurora facility with three immunocompromising diseases. She said that on Mar. 19, officials told her that ICE was moving her to a room with 17 other trans women from other facilities. Eight different NGOs have sent letters to DHS leadership to describe conditions following reports of detention center healthcare quality for immunocompromised detainees at Winn Correctional Center.

One of the NGOs mentioned previously, Immigration Equality, sent another letter specifically asking for the release of their immunocompromised clients in a Texas detention center. ICE released the two HIV positive detainees in Texas on April 31. Immigration Equality is calling for the release of all immunocompromised detainees and says that ICE has “a moral obligation” to do so.

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 and members of Congress in March detailing a “tinderbox scenario.” The scenario depicted in the letter described that if an outbreak occurred in the detention centers, the cases from the facility combined with local cases of the general population could overwhelm the hospital. On the other hand, by releasing some detainees, the “tinderbox scenario” would be “less likely to occur.”

While the rest of the country can practice social distancing and restrict non-essential contact, detention centers are generally incapable of this. A study released on Apr. 27 tested how far COVID-19 could spread with optimistic, moderate and pessimistic scenarios of transmission as well as its impact on local communities and hospitals. The study found that 72% of individuals would likely be infected in 90 days in the best-case-scenario. Nearly 100% would likely be infected in the worst-case-scenario during that same amount of time.

The study also found that in the optimistic scenario, “outbreaks among a minimum of nine ICE facilities (8%) would overwhelm local ICU beds within a 50-mile radius over a 90-day period.” ICE’s guidelines say that it must transfer those with severe symptoms to hospitals. However, if an outbreak occurs in a facility, the cases from the immigration detention centers combined with cases from the general population could overburden local healthcare systems.

In addition to the increased risk of congregated facilities, undocumented individuals are more likely than the general population to be uninsured. Furthermore, they face many medical stressors. These are factors that put migrants 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.

Systematic Release

Public health officials, doctors and the Former Acting Director of ICE, John Sandweg, have called on ICE to release all non-violent civil detainees through alternative-to-detention programs. By doing so, those left in the facilities would be able to better practice social distancing.  Those released would be tracked by ankle monitors while they maintain isolation like the general public. ICE has released almost 700 detainees on a case-by-case basis so far, most of whom were elderly or immunocompromised.

In addition to releasing detainees, doctors are also calling for the immediate halting of all non-essential transfers. Evidence has shown many of the confirmed cases of COVID-19 in U.S. immigration detention centers can be traced back to transfers. For example, a New York immigration attorney was trying to get her client released when ICE transferred the client and other detainees from New York and Pennsylvania to a center in Alvarado, Texas where cases drastically increased from 0 to at least 42.

ICE is attempting to implement social distancing measures inside the detention facilities and releasing some migrants. However, 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.  

Jacquelyn Burrer
Photo: Wikimedia

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