Note: this article, featuring our client Dr. Scott Allen and our Senior Counsel and Director of Education Dana Gold, was originally published here.
1 in 5 immigrants at ICE detention in Houston has COVID-19
More than 1 in 5 immigrants held at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Houston have tested positive with the new coronavirus as the rate of infection has nearly tripled there, raising concerns from health experts.
As of the end of May, 78 of the 379 immigrants held at the Houston Contract Detention Facility had tested positive for COVID-19, according to statistics provided by the federal agency. The previous week, 21 immigrants were reported to have been infected.
To Amanda M. Simanek, an epidemiology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Public Health, the infection rate was concerning but not surprising.
“In any congregate, indoor setting in which there is overcrowding, maintaining levels of social distancing necessary to prevent the spread of infection is a huge challenge, which makes detention centers prime locations for outbreaks,” Simanek said.
The facility has the highest infection rate among three ICE dedicated detention centers in the Greater Houston Area. It is also the only one administered by CoreCivic, a private contractor that manages detention and correctional facilities for government agencies.
The Joe Corley Detention Center in Conroe follows with an infection rate of 14.7 percent among immigrant detainees, or about 1 in every 7 people. The number of confirmed cases grew from 29 to 43 during the last week of May.
The other ICE facility, the Montgomery Processing Center, has an infection rate of 4.4 percent. However, its COVID-19 cases more than doubled in the same period, from eight to 21. The private firm GEO Group manages that site and Corley.
ICE officials said the agency has intensified its testing capability in the three Houston facilities, resulting in a corresponding rise in the number of cases.
The agency said more than 400 ICE detainees had been tested in the three detention facilities combined. They said they are now also examining detainees who are asymptomatic, adding that nearly two-thirds of those tested positive were at the time.
With over 440 positive COVID-19 cases in detention centers across Texas, the state leads the country in the number of infections among ICE detainees, almost equal to Louisiana, with 294 confirmed cases, and California with 160, combined.
ICE has tested 2,781 detainees under its custody across the country as of Tuesday morning, and half of them, or 1,406, were COVID-19 positive. In the afternoon, they reported having fewer cases under their custody, 813, and 3,092 tested. The discrepancy could be due to a change in reporting method as ICE is now separating cases by “total confirmed” and “currently under isolation or monitoring.”
There are also 44 confirmed cases among employees of ICE detention centers nationwide.
One health expert told congressional leaders this week that an anticipated spread of COVID-19 through detention facilities could eventually overwhelm nearby healthcare providers and expand the virus in communities.
“Now the flames are growing,” Dr. Scott Allen testified Tuesday at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about practices of ICE detentions and prisons during the pandemic. He said he warned Congress in a March letter of a “tinderbox scenario.”
Recent data from the COVID Prison Project shows that prison populations test substantially higher than the general population in many states, said Allen, who works for the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in the Department of Homeland Security, to which ICE belongs. However, he testified as an individual supported by the whistleblower advocacy group Government Accountability Project.
Based on his two decades of experience in correctional health, Allen warned that the expansion of COVID-19 inside detention centers represents not only a risk for detainees but also for the surrounding communities.
He compared detention centers to “bus terminals with people coming and going.” New immigrants arrive regularly and are often transferred from facilities escorted by staff. Detainees are also released at courts and dropped at bus stations and airports without warning, he said. “Officers and staff come and go, three shifts a day. And the virus can easily move back and forth by means of the asymptomatic ‘silent spreaders’ who carry the virus but do not have symptoms.”
His lawyer Dana Gold, with the Accountability Project, said Allen could not comment directly on the conditions at the three facilities in Houston.
Simanek, the epidemiology professor, said that the high proportion of asymptomatic immigrants who tested positive in the three Houston detention centers are precisely the silent spreaders together with staff in the same condition.
“This is even more testimony to why the inability to properly social distance in such settings is problematic,” Simanek said, talking about detentions in general.
Meanwhile, immigrant detainees have been trying to reach out to the public with letters, messages and videos posted on social media about their fears of contamination in unsanitary confinement conditions.
“There are many people sick inside (ICE detentions), but they don’t want to tell,” said an immigrant from Honduras who was at the Houston Correctional and Montgomery facility this year and released two weeks ago. She doesn’t want to be identified for fear of retaliation since she is still hoping to advance her case in court.
Advocacy organizations such as the Houston Legal Collaborative and Freedom for Immigrants said they are receiving numerous calls from detained immigrants complaining about lack of hygiene and protection from the virus.
ICE officers insist that they are taking measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and noted that they had released about 900 detainees nationwide with serious risk of infection due to underlying health conditions.
Democratic lawmakers have questioned ICE’s handling of the pandemic at detention facilities. A recent inspection under the Department of Homeland Security found several deficiencies. At the Corley facility, for example, units of both women and men with a capacity of 10 or more detainees have only one toilet.
The DHS Office of Inspector General said last month that the agency’s watchdog is opening an investigation into ICE handling of the pandemic in its detention facilities.