COVID-19 Spreads though ICE Detention Centers

Message written on the window of an ICE detention center in Massachusetts.


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As the COVID-19 pandemic rages across the U.S., immigrants continue to be hard hit. COVID-19 is spreading almost unchecked through detention centers that house immigrants. As of July 1st, more than 2,700 detainees had tested positive for COVID-19, a number that is almost certainly low. Although ICE claims to be following federal guidelines for COVID-19 safety, former Homeland Security health adviser and whistleblower Dr. Scott Allen testified to Congress in June, saying that “gaping holes in the testing guidelines and ICE’s failure to significantly reduce population size have made these facilities hotspots for the virus.” 

Many immigrants being held in detention centers (many of which are for-profit), have complained of lack of space to social distance, lack of protective gear, showers, and adequate medical care. Many of these detention centers have abysmal health and safety records. Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, housed at the for-profit Otay Mesa detention center in California, was the first detainee to die of COVID-19 in the U.S. Because people in ICE custody are held on civil rather than criminal charges, they could be released at any time. Many immigrant advocates and lawyers have been pushing for wide-scale releases due to safety concerns. But instead, ICE has adopted a policy of crowding people suspected of having COVID-19 into designated areas and waiting to see if they get better or worse. Inmates at the Otay facility reported requesting help for Mr. Escobar Mejia many times, but he was only given ibuprofen for his symptoms before he died. He had lived in the U.S. for 40 years. 

In late June, a Federal judge ruled that the Trump administration must release migrant children from ICE detention centers by July 27, where 346 parents and their children were being detained in facilities with COVID-19 outbreaks. With ICE pushing for a deal that would present parents with the horrible choice of either remaining detained with their children and risk being infected with COVID-19, or releasing their children with no guarantee of where they would be placed or when (or if) they would be reunited, immigrant advocates were pushing for families to be released together and for stricter safety measures to be implemented in detention centers. The Trump administration, which has separated over 5,000 immigrant children from their parents since 2017, opposed families being released together. As of mid-August, at least 120 children remain in ICE detention centers, weeks past the deadline set by the judge. Under the Flores Settlement Agreement, children cannot be detained for more than 20 days by federal immigration officials, but they are often detained for much longer. At one Texas facility, 47 children have been detained for over 300 days.

But ICE is no stranger to flouting government rules. In a shocking revelation, The New York Times obtained government data showing that hotel detentions overseen by a private security firm have ballooned under an aggressive border closure policy implemented by the Trump administration in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the policy, over 100,000 migrants, including children and families, have been expelled from the country rather than put into formal deportation proceedings. Instead of deterring migrants, border crossings have surged under the pandemic.

Now unaccompanied migrant children, some as young as 1 year old, are being detained in major hotel chains in a “shadow detention” system. Because the hotels exist outside of the formal detention system, they are not subject to policies designed to prevent abuse or to ensure that migrants have access to phones, healthy food, and medical care. Parents and lawyers have no way of tracking where children are being held and monitoring their wellbeing while in custody. They are often being cared for by workers without proper training in providing childcare. “A transportation vendor should not be in charge of changing the diaper of a 1-year-old, giving bottles to babies or dealing with the traumatic effects they might be dealing with. I’m worried kids may be exposed to abuse, neglect, including sexual abuse, and we will have no idea,” said Andrew Lorenzen-Strait, a former deputy assistant director for custody management at ICE.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration recently announced that ICE made over 2,000 arrests during a 6-week operation across major cities like LA. As Trump continues to target immigrant communities, mass protests are taking place across the U.S. against police brutality and the plague of police murders of Black people. What is needed now is a movement in the streets in solidarity with both the African American community, many of whom are trapped in the racist prison system, and the Latinx community being targeted by ICE. An injury to one is an injury to all!

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