Originally Published in The New York Times
Isabell Niu and Emily Rhône - April 26, 2021
The United States currently has the largest immigration detention system in the world. On any given day, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, holds tens of thousands of people in about 200 facilities across the country. And throughout the pandemic, these facilities have become some of the most dangerous places in the United States when it comes to Covid-19 outbreaks.
Our analysis compared estimated infection rates in ICE detention centers with infection rates in prisons and in the general population. As Covid-19 cases rose last June, ICE detention facilities had an average infection rate five times that of prisons and 20 times that of the general population.
To understand the risks the ICE facilities posed, we talked to former detainees, data scientists, lawyers, county officials and the family of a former ICE contractor about the spread of Covid-19 inside and outside ICE detention centers. We also reviewed court documents, medical records of detainees and government inspection reports from June 2020 to March 2021. Here’s what we found.
1. Detainees have little protection from Covid-19 in custody.
There are a number of reasons Covid-19 hit ICE detention sites particularly hard, including spotty implementation of the agency’s own pandemic guidelines in its facilities.
At the La Palma Correctional Center in Arizona for example, a recent government inspection report found repeated violations of mask-wearing and social-distancing protocols. According to the report, detainees staged peaceful protests to draw attention to these conditions, and were violently punished by detention center staff.
Another problem is the lack of testing. At a Senate hearing last June, Henry Lucero, ICE’s executive associate director of Enforcement and Removal Operations, testified that anyone experiencing Covid-19 symptoms in custody would be tested for the coronavirus.
But that wasn’t always true. Sandra Esqueda, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, was detained at the El Paso Service Processing Center in Texas from April to November 2020. Her medical documents show that after going to the facility’s medical care unit with symptoms, she wasn’t tested until five days later. She tested positive, and dozens of other detainees were infected around the same time, according to Ms. Esqueda.
At another detention center in Farmville, Va., ICE’s failure to contain the virus last summer led to an outbreak of about 250 cases, out of roughly 300 detainees in the facility. One later died of Covid-19.
2. Infections inside detention centers have ripple effects in surrounding communities.
Not all ICE facilities have been hit equally hard by Covid-19. A New York Times database analyzing reports from federal and local agencies found that larger outbreaks in ICE detention have tended to be concentrated in southern-border states.
Take Frio County, Texas, for example. This rural county of around 20,000 people is home to two large ICE facilities run by private prison companies. On May 5, 2020, there were 10 known cases in the county, all of them linked to the South Texas ICE Processing Center. Three days later, the number of positive cases had tripled countywide.
That trend continued for several more months, according to data analysts. Early findings from the UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project show that throughout the pandemic, infections inside the detention facility in Frio County have typically been followed by infections in the general community.
Researchers found the same pattern at nine other ICE facilities that experienced large outbreaks — in Texas, Florida, Georgia, Arizona, Louisiana and California.
In Laredo, Texas, local health authorities issued mandatory quarantine orders for two ICE detention centers in late July. Still, within the next few weeks, hundreds of new cases were reported at the detention centers, straining the city’s already overwhelmed hospitals.
A spokeswoman for ICE told The Times in a statement that the agency had “taken extensive steps to safeguard all detainees, staff and contractors, including: testing upon intake, reducing the number of detainees in custody, placing individuals on alternatives to detention programs.”
3. Lack of consistent Covid-19 data from ICE makes it difficult to track community spread.
Every day, ICE posts the numbers of active infections among detainees, as well as deaths from Covid-19. But they don’t maintain a running record of daily infections since the start of the pandemic, making it difficult to understand the extent to which the virus has spread in ICE detention over time.
Another major limitation is that the agency does not release data on infections of staff members, information that is vital to understanding community spread. Experts say that staff movement is a major source of transmission of the virus from ICE detention centers to the general population. The data is also obscured by the fact that a vast majority of ICE detainees are held in facilities run not by the agency but by private prison companies, which are not required to share information with the public.
At a House hearing on oversight of ICE detention facilities in July 2020, Representative Kathleen Rice of New York asked the chief executives of four ICE private contractors to release data on employee infections. All four said they would release the information with authorization from ICE, but to date there is still no systemwide data on infections among ICE contractors. In a statement to The Times, the agency declined to comment on how the pandemic has affected its staff.
4. ICE could be releasing more people to reduce the spread of Covid-19.
As an agency, ICE has wide discretion over who gets detained and released. Immigration detention is civil detention, meaning that people in custody are not there to serve time for committing a crime, but to wait for an immigration court to decide whether they can stay in the United States.
In April 2020, a federal judge in California ordered ICE to “identify and consider releasing detainees who are at higher risk of complications from Covid-19,” regardless of legal status. Nearly a year later, the same judge found that the agency had “failed to substantially comply with the court’s orders.”
In the past year, more than 3,700 people have been released from ICE detention, and the total number of people in ICE custody has been cut in half due to court orders and the Trump administration’s coronavirus border restrictions.
But the current average infection rate inside ICE detention facilities is still about 20 times that of the general U.S. population, according to the UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project. This means ICE detention facilities are still hot spots of infection that pose risks to anyone who comes into contact with them. And unlike the Federal Bureau of Prisons, ICE does not have its own systemwide plan to vaccinate people in custody. Instead, it is leaving Covid-19 vaccinations for ICE detainees in the hands of state governments, to be administered at their own discretion.