June 9th, 2020
Hidden behind barbwire fences and concrete walls, the pandemic has transformed ICE Detention Centers
into black holes--and viral breeding grounds.
Even before COVID-19, ICE Detention Centers gained a reputation as uncleanly and inhumane. Last summer, the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General found “egregious violations” in four detention centers, including food safety violations, nutritional shortages, insufficient hygiene items, and poor medical care. The agency found “unsafe and unhealthy conditions of varying degrees at all of the facilities we visited.”
The current pandemic has only augmented the pre-existing vulnerabilities of the ICE detainee population. Subjugated to packed cell blocks, sharing dirty communal bathrooms, and lacking adequate access to testing PPE, ICE detainees have experienced the madness and anxiety of the COVID-19 unlike anything imaginable to the American public. The media spent weeks covering New York City--the epicenter of the pandemic. An outpour of compassion, donations, and supplies from across the country followed. Americans sympathized with New Yorkers, quarantined inside shoebox apartments.
But as the pandemic rips through prisons and detention centers across the country, the media coverage has hardly covered an even grimmer reality: life in the ICE cell block. Compared to the average New Yorker, ICE detainees are condemned to small, large-group living arrangements. While in New York City, the median household of 2.42 people lives in 866 square feet , most detainees in Otay Mesa Detention Center split 250 square feet between 8-person cells, according to court documents. Others cram into poorly ventilated 2-person cells. Detainees from different cells share communal bathrooms with upwards of 90 people.
Immigration attorney Ginger Jacobs says, “social distancing is impossible.”
Further exacerbating conditions, detainees held across the country report inadequate sanitation. ICE refuses to distribute hand sanitizer due to the alcohol content, while soap dispensers reportedly run low. Ms. Jacobs shares, “the replenishment of soap largely depends on the guard on-duty.” Access to masks depends on the facility; at Elizabeth Detention Facility in New Jersey fails to provide masks, while Otay Mesa Detention Facility in California distributes single-use disposable masks every two weeks. The conditions are deadly.
Given these conditions, the positive cases among ICE detainees come at no surprise. When an outbreak occurs, facility workers carry the virus home to their families and communities.
Worse yet, three former detainees have already died from COVID-19 complications. The first, Carlos Ernesto Escobar-Mejia, detained at Otay Mesa Detention Center, was pronounced dead on May 6, 2020. The second, Oscar Lopez Acosta, was released from Murrow County Correctional Facility and soon after tested positive for the virus. The third, Santiago Baten-Oxlaj, a 34-year-old immigrant detained in Stewart Detention Center, died on May 24, 2020.
ICE data only reports two of these three deaths. Why? Acosta was no longer in ICE custody at the time of his hospitalization. Cases from the 12,000 former detainees deported or released from facilities since the pandemic outbreak is not included in ICE data. Upon arrival to Guatemala in April, 71 of 76 migrants deported on a single flight tested positive for COVID-19. Reports like these confirm the statistical gaps in ICE reporting. How many cases and deaths have gone unaccounted for?
Meanwhile, ICE has closed accountability channels by discontinuing visitation hours, limiting attorney access, and banning tours by Congress and oversight groups. With detention centers shut off from the outside world, data and reporting disproportionately rely on information from ICE, privately run detention facilities, and correctional officers. Courts have questioned ICE’s data; in an ACLU-driven lawsuit in Maryland, the federal district court judge reproved sworn testimony from ICE Deputy Assistant Director for Healthcare Compliance Jennifer Moon as “demonstrably false.”
Perhaps even more concerning, ICE has only tested 5,096 detainees nationwide , yielding a test-positivity rate of 34%. In comparison, the CDC reports that the United States reduced its test-positivity rate to almost 10%. The World Health Organization recommends targeting a 5% positivity rate benchmark. ICE’s test-positivity rate soars past the benchmark.
The test-positivity rate is a valuable metric. Typically, only highly symptomatic individuals with pre-existing conditions can access rationed tests. Based on preliminary data, the strong correlation between case growth and test growth indicates that if ICE tested more people, the total number of confirmed positive detainees would increase.
Furthermore, the data published by ICE is obscured by the exclusion of information on US Marshals Service and county jail inmates and staff. Many immigrants in ICE’s primarily civil system are held in local jails or private prisons alongside criminal offenders. The US Marshals Service has yet to report COVID-19 data, and testing information on county jails varies by jurisdiction. While the DetainedInDanger map highlights the outbreaks among ICE detainees, the map cannot clearly indicate the extent to which the epidemic has impacted the entirety of each facility.
Thus, the map does not tell the entire story. In order to better understand this hidden epidemic, more tests and information are needed.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 continues to devastate entire detention centers. ICE deports the virus to Central American countries, transfers detainees between facilities, rations PPE, and rejects detainee release requests. Those in ICE custody are overwhelmingly immigrants and asylum seekers held for civil offenses: processing at the border, asylum hearings, or administrative reasons. Research confirms they present a limited flight risk and no danger to the American public. Even John Sandweg, former acting director of ICE, has called for the release of detainees.
The conditions inside ICE detention centers are costing innocent lives. ICE possesses the independent discretion to release its civil offenders. How many lives will be lost before action is taken?