U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been a horrifying — and avoidable — calamity. By handing out masks late, forcing detained people into close quarters, refusing to release the medically vulnerable, not reporting infections, testing inadequately, frequently transferring detainees, and pressuring staff and guards to continue working despite compromised health, ICE’s handling of the pandemic has led to over 7,000 reported positive cases and at least 8 coronavirus-related deaths among detained people.
A new report from Detention Watch Network finds that the dire situation inside also led to wider consequences: When spread in the communities surrounding detention centers is included, ICE’s sprawling incarceration system added nearly a quarter million cases to the total U.S. caseload.
The DWN report, “Hotbeds of Infection,” released on Wednesday, lays bare how ICE’s abundant failures and dilatory mismanagement killed and infected people inside detention centers and significantly contributed to the spread of Covid-19 across the country. By August 1, almost 5.5 percent of total U.S. cases, according to the report, were attributable to spread from ICE detention centers. The report is yet another damning indication that ICE’s dereliction in protecting basic human rights, grievous medical neglect, and lack of transparency in how it detains and treats people in its system of over 200 detention centers is a massive public health threat — both to detainees and the greater U.S. population.
“The impact of ICE’s failure to adequately respond to the pandemic was far reaching and multilayered,” the DWN report says. “Even as COVID-19 cases have surged across the country, ICE has ramped up enforcement activities, creating a recipe for disaster for those in detention and surrounding communities.”
The report’s authors were at pains to explain that it is not immigrants who spread disease but rather the immigration detention regime — the nature of incarceration and all it entails — that fosters disease and sickens migrants and communities alike. “It is setting up ideal lab conditions for incubating viruses and putting them out into the community,” said Gregory Hooks, a professor of sociology at McMaster University and co-author of the DWN report.
It is not immigrants who spread disease but rather the immigration detention regime that fosters disease and sickens migrants and communities alike.
Dr. Ranit Mishori, a Georgetown University School of Medicine professor and senior medical adviser at Physicians for Human Rights, said, “The United States has a long history of scapegoating immigrants for the spread of infectious diseases, yet medical evidence suggests that punitive immigration enforcement — such as packing detention facilities or scaring immigrants away from accessing medical care — is the true threat to public health.”
Danielle Bennett, an ICE spokesperson, told The Intercept that since the outbreak, the agency “has taken extensive steps to safeguard all detainees, staff and contractors, including: reducing the number of detainees in custody by placing individuals on alternatives to detention programs, suspending social visitation, incorporating social distancing practices with staggered meals and recreation times, and through the use of testing, cohorting and medical isolation.”
Between May 1 and August 1, the DWN report found, ICE detention facilities were responsible for over 245,000 Covid-19 cases throughout the country. If a separate country had reported the number of Covid-19 cases attributed just to ICE detention facilities at that point, it would have ranked 16th in the world, having a higher case rate than Germany, France, and Canada. The infection rate inside immigration detention centers was 13 times higher than that of the general U.S. population, which would have, taken together, made them by far the most contagious country in the world, according to World Health Organization stats.
“Hotbeds of Infection” takes advantage of county-level data on coronavirus infections made available by the New York Times. The authors examined links between ICE detention facilities and confirmed cases of Covid-19 in nearby counties. Focusing on the initial spread of Covid-19 and based on logistic regression modeling, the report provides evidence that Covid-19 arrived sooner — in April and May — and outbreaks were more severe in counties with ICE facilities, as well as in neighboring counties. Over the summer, there was a sharp contrast between counties situated in multicounty economic areas with a high number of people detained by ICE and counties situated in areas with fewer people detained. As the pandemic spiraled out of control over the summer, the health care system in economic areas with a significant ICE presence were burdened by thousands of additional Covid-19 cases.
Recognizing that other factors besides the presence of detention centers contribute to increased Covid-19 caseloads, the authors included a range of control variables, including but not limited to the presence of nursing homes; meatpacking plants; other high-density living quarters including prisons, military bases, or universities; population density; and the percentage of nonwhite populations, who continue to suffer the worst of the pandemic. After taking into account these other variables, the analysis showed a statistically significant relationship between the presence of an ICE detention center and an exacerbation of the Covid-19 outbreak in the surrounding multicounty area. (DWN also released a companion methodology report.)
The advocacy group Freedom for Immigrants reports that over half of immigration detention centers are currently reporting coronavirus outbreaks. According to the DWN report, California, Texas, and Arizona had by far the most Covid-19 cases resulting from the presence of ICE detention facilities.
ICE wasn’t only responsible for imperiling the people it detained and for spreading the virus to surrounding communities, it was also spreading the virus abroad. By continuing deportations even while the U.S.-Mexico border was almost completely shut down for migrants and asylum-seekers, ICE exported the virus to Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico, El Salvador, and India — all countries with few intensive care beds, few respirators, and relatively meager health systems particularly vulnerable to viral spread.
Last spring, at one point, people deported from the United States made up as much as 20 percent of all known Covid-19 cases in Guatemala. In the 2020 fiscal year, ICE deported 164,455 people from the U.S., potentially sending thousands, or even tens of thousands, of cases throughout the world.
Attorneys, advocates, detainees, and even judges began sounding the alarm about Covid-19 in the immigration detention system in March, but ICE failed to heed the calls to take significant preventive measures. Early on in the pandemic, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that ICE was not providing detainees with proper information about the virus. The Intercept reported that a detention center in Georgia, while engaging in a host of medically dangerous practices, was ignoring and underreporting coronavirus cases.
In April, a federal judge ordered ICE to consider the release of all detainees over the age of 55 due to risks from coronavirus, ruling that ICE has shown “medical indifference” and put people with serious medical conditions or disabilities at “substantial risk of harm.” Overall, though, very few people were released. Thousands got sick.
Just last week, a judge issued a scathing decision against ICE’s Mesa Verde processing facility in Bakersfield, California — where more than half of the detainees and one-third of the staff have tested positive for the virus — claiming that ICE’s actions showed a “deliberate indifference to the safety of the detainees.” The judge admonished ICE and the private detention corporation GEO Group for their “appalling” and “abominable” response to infections, accusing the detention authorities of deliberately avoiding tests so that the facilities would not need to take protective measures for detainees. The Intercept recently reported that detainees at an Alabama ICE jail were punished, including with solitary confinement, merely for asking to be tested.
Meanwhile, medical staff, administrators, vendors, visitors, and guards have been bringing the virus into detention centers across the country and carrying the virus out, with ICE doing little — and sometimes nothing — to contain the spread on both sides of the bars.
Immigration detention centers, the report grimly notes, “have been among the deadliest of public institutions during the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The U.S. immigration detention system has a history of medically negligent, dehumanizing, squalid, and sometimes deadly conditions — including previous viral outbreaks — that far predate the Covid-19 crisis. Just in fiscal year 2020, a total of 20 people died in ICE detention centers.
For years, experts have repeatedly condemned the agency for violating basic health standards, keeping detained people locked up for prolonged periods, abusing them, even torturing them, and placing them at high risk for mental and physical decline. In 2019, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and its Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties began investigating troubling reports of in-custody deaths of adults and children, as well as deficient medical care, improper treatment, and filthy conditions at facilities operated by both ICE and Customs and Border Protection, another immigration enforcement agency under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security. They found “a widespread failure to provide necessary medical care to detainees with serious and chronic medical conditions, along with critical medical staff shortages.” The conditions, in other words, were perfect for a rapacious virus to take hold.
“Hotbeds of Infection” is the first report to build on the investigations into the dangers within detention centers and looks closely at the risks they pose to the communities where they’re located. “Evidence points to detention centers sparking infections early in the pandemic and making outbreaks worse,” the report says. The multicounty areas surrounding detention centers with the highest number of people detained saw a 20 percent increase in Covid-19 caseloads. Hooks, the report co-author, said, “I think of prisons and detention centers as ongoing superspreader events.”
In May, officials in Pearsall, Texas, raised the alarm after every local case of Covid-19 could be traced back to ICE’s negligence at the South Texas ICE Processing Center. Similarly, a detention center in El Paso, Texas, has not only been experiencing its own scourge but is exacerbating wider community contagion: El Paso and its surrounding areas are suffering one of the worst infection rates in the country — and the immigration detention center contributed to more than 1,250 cases in the county.
“These facilities are dangerous. They are bad for the people detained, bad for the people who work there, and bad for the surrounding communities.”
While the number of people locked into immigration detention has been going down throughout the pandemic — in large part because of the broader lockdown, especially at the U.S.-Mexico border — the concern remains that ICE isn’t doing enough to release people. Legally, the agency could release almost everyone in their custody, and there have been calls for them to do so.
Jails and prisons are equally dangerous for spreading infection, though their contribution to community spread — with thousands of them throughout the country — is harder to tabulate. The infection rate in prisons is more than four times as high as that of the general public and the death rate is more than twice as high, according to a report from the National Commission on Covid-19 and Criminal Justice. And, much like immigrant detention centers, prisons and jails see people constantly going in and out.
In late October, Gothamist reported that ICE agents were rearresting older people who, because of their medical vulnerabilities, had been previously released and locking them back into detention. Bennett, the ICE spokesperson, told The Intercept that, since March, “ICE has worked to reduce intake so that the agency is maintaining detention capacity at each facility at or below the 75 percent recommended by the CDC” — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nonetheless, social distancing inside detention centers remains all but impossible. Detainees have complained not only of inadequate testing and being forced into close quarters with a transient population but also a lack of basic essentials such as masks, disinfectant, or soap.
“These facilities are dangerous,” said Bob Libal, another co-author of the DWN report. “They are bad for the people detained, bad for the people who work there, and bad for the surrounding communities.”
Leonel Ignacio Martín contributed reporting.