Covid infections surge in immigration detention facilities

This article features Government Accountability Project whistleblower clients Drs. Scott Allen and Josiah “Jody” Rich, and was originally published here.

Coronavirus infections in federal immigration detention centers have surged to record highs, with at least one detainee taken to the hospital in recent days, increasing pressure on the Biden administration from advocates to release migrants or at least ensure that they are given booster shots.

More than 3,100 detainees were fighting infections late last week, about 14 percent of the detained population and well past the peak of 2,100 last May, according to the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice, which tracks the issue.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials have said most detainees are new arrivals apprehended at the southwest border and many are infected before being booked into custody, where they are tested, quarantined and offered medical care, including vaccines. But medical experts and lawyers said the virus is also spreading inside the facilities and that booster shots are not widely available.

A pair of government whistleblowers urged the agency to “immediately” ensure that all detainees and staff have access to booster shots, saying in a letter last week to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and ICE acting director Tae Johnson that it was “inexplicable” that ICE had not expanded booster use as the high-speed omicron variant rips through facilities in Texas, Arizona and Georgia.

“The failure to act with alacrity has contributed to the number of confirmed COVID cases skyrocketing since the emergence of the Omicron variant,” doctors Scott Allen and Josiah Rich, who inspect the facilities for the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, wrote in the letter, which was made public by their lawyer at the Government Accountability Project.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a new lawsuit this week seeking booster shots for five immigrants at risk of death because of the virus. The immigrants said they asked for booster shots and were either denied or ignored, despite having conditions such as obesity and heart ailments that put them at higher risk of death if infected.

“This is a huge concern,” ACLU lawyer Eunice Cho said in an interview. “Once omicron hits a facility, it’s devastating.”

ICE did not respond to the allegations outlined in the whistleblowers’ complaint and the ACLU’s lawsuit.

But the agency said last month that officials have been releasing many immigrants at high risk of death because of the virus and offering vaccines and booster shots to all detainees, if they are held long enough to receive them.

A typical detainee spent 37 days in ICE custody last fiscal year, far less time than the months they’d have to wait for a booster shot. As a result, officials said, more vaccines have been administered than boosters. As of Jan. 5, approximately 48,200 detainees had been vaccinated and 671 were given booster shots.

ICE holds immigrants in approximately 200 facilities, a mix of public and privately run detention centers and county jails, while determining if they should be released into the United States or deported. This patchwork system — and the fact that immigration arrests generally are kept secret — makes the explanations for the spiraling infections impossible to verify.

ICE posts infections and deaths on its website but does not publicly track how many detainees or staff members are hospitalized or unvaccinated.

Some information has come to light via lawsuits, such as one in Washington state where a federal judge has ordered ICE to quickly inform the court when detainees or staff at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma are infected or hospitalized.

ICE reported that one detainee with covid was taken to the hospital on Saturday after complaining of chest tightness, and then returned to detention. He had tested negative for the virus before he was transferred from an ICE facility near the border to Tacoma.

Naeem Khan, a 50-year-old detainee from Pakistan at the Tacoma facility, said he has already gotten the virus once and is fearful of getting sick again. He said he got the booster in December but remains at high risk because of worsening diabetes. He has been held since September 2019, longer than he served for the state felony of violating a restraining order against his ex-wife, which landed him in deportation proceedings.

Officials have refused to release him because they said he poses a threat to public safety. But his lawyer Adam Boyd said Khan is a recovering alcoholic who worked hard to rehabilitate himself.

“I am really scared of getting covid” again, Khan said in a phone interview.

ICE’s latest data shows that nearly 80 percent of detainees are migrants who recently crossed the border and were apprehended by Customs and Border Protection. ICE arrested other detainees in the interior of the United States, typically because they have been convicted of a crime, according to the latest agency data online.

Both groups are a priority for deportation under the Biden administration, but those convicted of crimes can spend months or years in detention fighting their cases.

The immigration agency’s response to the coronavirus first came under fire during the Trump administration when officials failed to give detention facilities direct access to vaccines.

The Biden administration is detaining far fewer migrants than the Trump administration did at its peak, when more than 50,000 people were in custody. But federal judges ordered the Trump administration to reduce those numbers during the pandemic, and they dropped to approximately 15,000 when President Biden took office. Because of the influx at the border over the last year, that number has risen past 21,000 detainees.

The number of cumulative infections in ICE detention has risen from 10,000 in March 2021 to 38,000 this week. Eleven people have died, most recently in October when a 40-year-old man from Venezuela died after contracting covid.