In a victory for immigrants and their advocates this week, a federal judge ruled that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) must test detained people for COVID-19 before transferring them to the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) Tacoma, Washington. It seems like it would make public health sense to have already been doing that, but this lawsuit continues to expose that ICE’s baseline when it comes to the health and lives of detained people is to do nothing.
“ICE’s indifference to the health and safety of people in detention is unconscionable,” American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) National Prison Project Staff Attorney Eunice Cho said. “We are grateful for the court’s order, but it’s mind-boggling that it took court action to make ICE take even the most basic measures, including COVID-testing before placing people on cross-country flights, to keep vulnerable immigrants safe. This only underscores the inherent inhumanity of our immigration detention system.”
“The court’s decision concluded that ICE has violated the constitutional rights of medically vulnerable detained persons at NWDC, where an outbreak of COVID-19 has spread rapidly in recent months,” Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) said in a joint statement with the ACLU. The organizations said that nearly 250 detained immigrants there (and almost two dozen staffers) have tested positive for the virus in recent months. By comparison, The News Tribune reported that only 34 detained immigrants tested positive at the site from March 2020 to April 2021. This is tied to ICE’s transfers, they said.
“The outbreak has occurred only after ICE began to transfer detainees from the southern border to NWDC without first testing them, producing a dangerous situation. Without testing or cohorting, immigrants have been exposed to COVID-19 during these long, transcontinental flights. And once arriving at the detention center, they are often placed in cells with other detainees while awaiting days for COVID-19 testing results.”
The judge’s ruling also orders the facility—which is privately operated by private prison profiteer GEO Group—to ensure detained immigrants who test negative are not exposed to those who test positive. Once again, health measures ICE should’ve already been consistently taking. “At this point in the pandemic, testing is a widespread tool that we all know and understand to be key to mitigating the spread of COVID-19,” NWIRP Staff Attorney Aaron Korthuis said. “Today’s decision ensures that this most basic of safety measures will be in place to help lower the risk that medically vulnerable immigrants are exposed to COVID-19.”
However, ICE has been busy targeting immigrant rights advocates who have condemned NWDC’s abuses. In one email released as part of a report of ICE surveillance and retribution against critics, ICE officials described activist Maru Mora-Villalpando and others as “instigators of all the turmoil” for actions protesting the facility, writing that throwing her “into proceedings might actually take away some of her ‘clout.’” The report said that “[v]arious ICE records—such as those obtained through FOIA, produced through active litigation and even forms entered into her immigration file—demonstrate that ICE’s decision to place Maru in removal proceedings was an act of retaliation against her role in organizing against the NWDC.”
If only ICE put half the effort it uses to harass people to protect them instead. Better yet, ICE should release them, which it has every ability to do. That’s the best way to keep people safe. Yet the Biden administration is apparently fighting another court ruling ordering it to provide vaccines to medically vulnerable immigrants, the Southern Poverty Law Center said. “It is truly appalling that ICE, a known superspreader agency, would seek to reverse a court order recognizing its obligation to vaccinate medically vulnerable people it chooses to jail,” Disability Rights Advocates attorney Rosa Lee Bichell said. “The Biden administration's appeal completely contradicts its own rhetoric on the importance of vaccination to end this pandemic.”
“Detained immigrants face a particularly vulnerable situation where they are often unable to take measures to protect themselves,” Korthuis continued. “We hope that it signals to ICE the need to take more seriously this problem and the health of detained immigrants who are being transported to other places beyond the Northwest Detention Center.”