Thousands of new COVID-19 case were confirmed in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) prisons as the number of detained people nearly doubled compared to April, The New York Times reports. “More than 26,000 people were in detention last week, compared with about 14,000 in April,” the report said. “More than 7,500 new coronavirus cases have been reported in the centers over that same period.”
This comes as an absolute shock to no one. Advocates in recent months have been sounding the alarm about the fact that detention numbers have been rising sharply as ICE officials have continued to fail to put into place an official, nationwide vaccination plan for the immigrants they’re locking up. Yet, here we are. If this weren’t so fucking dangerous, it would be fucking ridiculous.
The Times reports that University of Colorado School of Medicine associate professor Carlos Franco-Paredes points to ICE’s deplorable practice of transferring detained immigrants from facility to facility as one of the factors leading to the rise in cases, as well as “insufficient testing and lax Covid-19 safety measures.” The report said that ICE claimed “that all new detainees were tested for the coronavirus and are held in quarantine for 14 days on arrival.” And ICE always, always tells the truth, right?
ICE was sued over the practice of transferred detainees just days ago, after officials transferred immigrants from a New Jersey facility to unknown locations. Essex County Correctional Center in Newark announced this past April that it would be ending its contract of more than a decade with ICE. Officials could just release detained immigrants to shelter at home; instead, they transferred them elsewhere, likely adding to the numbers reported by the Times.
In a letter earlier this year calling on ICE not to again detain immigrants it had to release due to the pandemic, Senate Democrats said less than 7% of people in the agency’s custody have been vaccinated. That has not greatly improved since, with the Times reporting 20% receiving at least one dose. This, combined with known, unsafe conditions inside immigration prisons, is just not enough to keep people safe. ICE should be releasing people. It’s the humane and common-sense thing to do. Instead, it’s filling its prisons back up, and continuing to be one of this pandemic’s best friends.
Internal documents obtained by a government watchdog last month continued to confirm that ICE was knowingly worsening the pandemic by deporting sick immigrants abroad. ICE also spread the virus to other areas of the nation through its transfers. Rather than releasing detained immigrants, ICE flew a number of people from facilities in New York and Pennsylvania to Texas, BuzzFeed News reported in April 2020. Dozens who were moved later tested positive.
In a letter to legislators last month, medical experts-turned-whistleblowers contracted with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties said ICE facilities continued to pose a major risk to detainees, staff, and surrounding communities. Among a number of urgent actions, they say officials must “prioritize detainees for the vaccination at the same priority level as staff.” CNN reported that ICE claimed in response to the whistleblower complaint that it was “working with federal partners to receive its own allocation of vaccines,” but whether than translates to a national plan with immediate access for all detained immigrants is unknown.
“News of Covid spreading in detention centers … feels like deja vu to a year ago except it's Biden and not Trump and instead of detention numbers going down, they're going up,” tweeted Detention Watch Network executive director Silky Shah. “Yes vaccinate, but the central demand is, and should always be, #FreeThemAll.”