June 25, 2021

Department of Homeland Security Medical Experts Blow the Whistle on Ongoing Dangers from COVID-19 in Immigration Detention Settings

WASHINGTON—Today, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) medical and mental health subject matter experts are blowing the whistle on the continuing threat that COVID-19 poses to workers, immigrants, and the public in immigration detention settings. Drs. Scott A. Allen, Pamela McPherson, and Josiah “Jody” Rich sent a letter to the House and Senate Homeland Security and Judiciary committees outlining these dangers.

As the current administration works to vaccinate millions of Americans as quickly as possible to combat the harmful spread of COVID-19, it has yet to adequately address the health risk posed to workers, immigrants and the surrounding communities by the congregate settings of immigration detention facilities. Drs. Allen, McPherson, and Rich, who warned in the beginning weeks of the pandemic of the risks posed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers from the spread of COVID-19, today renewed those warnings, urging Congress to:

  • develop and support a comprehensive COVID plan for immigration detention,
  • prioritize detainees for the vaccination at the same priority level as staff,
  • secure vaccine supplies to support universal vaccination for the detained population and distribute them to facilities in a timely manner, and
  • address the well-known mental health consequences of the pandemic.

During the Trump administration in February and March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, the doctors went to CRCL leadership and Congress about the need to proactively mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the congregate settings of immigration detention, warning that a failure to act would create a “tinderbox scenario.” Their warnings were tragically prescient, with the average infection rate at ICE detention facilities running twenty times higher than the general population.

Drs. Allen, McPherson, and Rich renewed their warnings about the ongoing risks with leadership in the current administration, writing to CRCL in February 2021 and to the White House Coronavirus Response Team and the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force in March 2021. With populations in immigration detention rising again, transfers of immigrants continuing unabated, and still no federal plan to vaccinate immigrants in detention despite abundant supply, they are writing now to Congress urging a federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic to address the substantial and specific danger to public health and safety posed by immigration detention settings.

Government Accountability Project Senior Counsel and attorney for Drs. Allen, McPherson, and Rich Dana Gold commented:

“Our clients raised the alarm over 15 months ago about the dangers posed to immigrants, workers and the public from the spread of COVID-19 in ICE detention. The utter failure of ICE detention facilities to protect staff and immigrants is well-documented in the press and confirmed by other whistleblowers. We hope that Congress can ensure that DHS finally heeds the recommendations of Drs. Allen, McPherson and Rich—their own medical experts—to prevent COVID-19 from causing any more preventable illnesses and death.”

Contact: Andrew Harman, Government Accountability Project Communications Director
Phone: (202) 926-3304

Government Accountability Project is the nation’s leading whistleblower protection organization. Through litigating whistleblower cases, publicizing concerns and developing legal reforms, Government Accountability Project’s mission is to protect the public interest by promoting government and corporate accountability. Founded in 1977, Government Accountability Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.