The death of a second detainee in ICE custody from Covid19-related causes was reported on 4 June. More than 800 detainees across all ICE facilities have tested positive, although only 10 percent of the detainee population had been tested as of 30 May. Multiple transfers between facilities have reportedly spread the virus and led to outbreaks in Texas, Ohio, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
In March 2020, ICE began a review of the 38,000 people detained in its facilities across the country and subsequently released only 693 elderly or otherwise vulnerable detainees, stating in mid-April that no other detainees would be released at that time. Other informants have reported increases during certain periods since the Covid-19 crisis began. The New Mexico Immigrant Law Centre reported in a GDP survey that in May ICE detention centers in New Mexico were still receiving new arrivals every day and that although some detainees had been tested for COVID-19, no regular testing was taking place.
According to a 4 June exposé published in the New York Times Magazine, while the numbers of intakes have fallen ICE officials have been reluctant to release more detainees because of an apparent concern that this may impact their ability to detain people post-crisis. According to the NYT report: “The agency’s reluctance to release detainees seems to stem less from any public threats posed by the people it detains than from an existential sort of anxiety about its own future. In response to one federal lawsuit filed on March 26 in California on behalf of two detained men, ICE lawyers wrote, ‘The disruptive effect of ordering petitioners released on this slim, hypothetical basis would long survive the Covid-19 pandemic, and the precedent would serve to release many aliens eligible for removal back into the general public’.”
The New York Times Magazine exposé focuses on the Irwin County Detention Centre in south Georgia, run by the Louisiana-based private company LaSalle Corrections. Many of the nearly 700 detainees at the facility had been asking officials for weeks after the onset of the pandemic to provide them with masks, temperature checks, and other safeguards, including that guards be required to wear masks and that no new detainees be brought into their units. Apart from some additional cleaning and temperature checks for new arrivals, little however changed, as confirmed by an independent medical examiner.
Lawyers with the Southern Poverty Law Centre and Asian Americans Advancing Justice filed a habeas petition on behalf of certain detainees at the Georgia facility, all of whom were medically vulnerable. In response to the habeas action, ICE said that fears of infection were “purely speculative” and “conjectural.” On 9 April, a 55 year-old Colombian national, recently brought to the facility, and a contracted transportation guard tested positive for Covid-19. Yet, only three of the 699 people detained in the facility had been tested. On the following day, the federal judge in the habeas case concerning the Georgia facility denied the request for the detainees’ release stating that the facility could fix the problems and alleviate any constitutional violations without releasing the eight people concerned.
Following several coordinated protests by detainees in different dorms in the centre and a video showing detention conditions, on 7 May, the judge presiding over the habeas petition agreed to allow a correctional-medicine expert to evaluate whether the centre was operating in a way that could keep detainees safe. The expert concluded that the facility was not complying with C.D.C. guidelines. On 13 May, ICE reported that a total of six detainees in Irwin detention centre had tested positive for Covid-19. The following day, some 40 men from different dorms were loaded onto a bus and transferred to the Steward Detention centre rather than being released. On 24 May, a Guatemalan man became the first Stewart detainee to die of Covid-19. The lawyers that had filed the habeas petition returned to court on 28 May, but on the question of the detainees’ release, Judge Land said: “I have not heard anything terribly persuasive to change my mind.”
The Georgia filing is one of dozens across the country demanding the release of elderly people and those with medical conditions. In at least 18 federal court districts, judges have acceded to these petitions and have ordered the release of detainees. As of 28 May, 392 people have been let out by order of federal courts. In California, a judge ordered ICE to identify older and medically vulnerable detainees. ICE identified 4,409 people who were at “heightened risk of severe illness and death.” However, at the end of May, the agency had only released 200 people “at risk” for a total of 900. In an email response to the New York Times Magazine, the agency spokesperson wrote that they had 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 cohorting and medical isolation.” However, as Covid-19 spread from ICE facility to the next, the agency continued to play down the risk, according to the NYT.
Freedom for Immigrants and the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice filed a joint complaint to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on 21 May concerning the exposure of people in ICE detention to hazardous chemicals. In Adelanto, guards are spraying HDQ Neutral, a very strong disinfectant, every 15 to 30 minutes around the housing units, “causing allergies and a lot of detainees are sneezing and coughing up blood.” Information submitted to the GDP by Alison Ly from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), indicated that the chemical is meant to be used in a well-ventilated and outdoor spaces, and warns that users must wear protective equipment and use a cloth to make sure the liquid does not aerosolize as it is toxic to inhale. In addition, staff are reportedly not warning detainees about the harmful effects of the chemical nor providing medical treatment to detainees. Freedom for Immigrants has received complaints from detainees who reported nausea, burning eyes, headaches and other side effects.
Deportations continue to take place. Deportees undergo basic health screenings but are not systematically tested for COVID-19. As reported in the GDP’s previous update, 21 deportation flights were made to Guatemala between 15 March and 24 April 2020. On 30 March, Guatemalan Vice President Castillo said he begged the U.S. to halt these flights. On 4 May, the Guatemalan Foreign Ministry reported that deportees from the United States accounted for more than 15 percent of all infections in the country. Human Rights Watch has called on the United States to stop deportations, on 4 June, stating that “with these reckless deportations, the Trump administration is contributing to the spread of Covid-19 and endangering public health globally.”
- Emma Kahn (New Mexico Immigrant Law Centre), Global Detention Project Covid-19 survey, 15 May 2020.
- Freedom for Immigrants and the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice, “Toxic Exposure of People in ICE Detention at Adelanto to Hazardous Chemicals,” 21 May 2020, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5a33042eb078691c386e7bce/t/5ecd29d03bbee218edf9a67d/1590503888290/Toxic+Exposure+of+People+in+ICE+Detention+at+Adelanto+to+Hazardous+Chemicals.pdf
- C. Carcamo and M. O’toole, “Migrants Deported By U.S. Make Up More Than 15% Of Guatemala’s Coronavirus Cases,” 4 May 2020, https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-05-04/u-s-deportation-flights-to-guatemala-resume-with-assurances-of-coronavirus-testing
- Human Rights Watch, “US: Suspend Deportations During Pandemic,” 4 June 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/06/04/us-suspend-deportations-during-pandemic
- T. J. Rachko, “Second Covid-19 Death in US Immigration Detention,” 4 June 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/06/04/second-covid-19-death-us-immigration-detention
- L R. Seville and H. Rappleye, “ICE Keeps Transferring Detainees Around The Country, Leading To COVID-19 Outbreaks,” 31 May 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/immigration/ice-keeps-transferring-detainees-around-country-leading-covid-19-outbreaks-n1212856
- S. F. Wessler, “Fear, Illness and Death in ICE Detention: How a Protest Grew on the Inside,” The New York Times Magazine, 4 June 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/04/magazine/covid-ice.html
- Immigrants are led onto a flight in the United States, (John Miller, Associated Press, ” Migrants deported by U.S. make up more than 15% of Guatemala’s coronavirus cases,” Los Angeles Times, 4 May 2020, https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-05-04/u-s-deportation-flights-to-guatemala-resume-with-assurances-of-coronavirus-testing)