Hispanic Caucus requests meeting with private detention center CEOs
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) on Friday formally requested a meeting with the CEOs of the two largest private detention center operators, as COVID-19 cases have spread among detainee and employee populations alike.
In a letter to CoreCivic CEO Damon Hininger and GEO Group CEO George Zoley, CHC Chairman Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) and Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) wrote that in the three months since President Trump declared a health emergency, the number of COVID-19 positive cases in detention centers has increased “exponentially.”
“Since both CoreCivic and GEO Group are ICE’s top operators of detention centers, we would like to request a virtual meeting with you and Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) Members at your earliest availability,” wrote Castro and Vargas.
The CHC has previously unsuccessfully attempted to meet with Hininger and Zoley, according to people with knowledge of the situation.
Steve Owen, a spokesman for CoreCivic, said the company is reviewing the letter.
“COVID-19 has created extraordinary challenges for every detention system in America – public and private. We have worked together closely with our government partners and state health officials to respond to this unprecedented situation appropriately, thoroughly and with care for the well-being of those entrusted to us and our communities,” wrote Owen in an email to The Hill.
“Our facilities are fully transparent to our government partners and elected officials, and we have accommodated several onsite visits from members of Congress since the pandemic began,” Owen continued.
Representatives for GEO Group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Castro and Vargas were joined by 22 members of the CHC in signing the letter.
According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the law enforcement agency that runs immigrant detention centers, there are 22,579 foreign nationals in custody. Of those people, 11,828 have been tested for COVID-19, and 883 have tested positive and remain in custody.
Among ICE employees, 45 who work in detention centers have tested positive for COVID-19, as have 153 agency employees assigned elsewhere.
Two detainees have died from the disease while in custody so far.
“As many public health experts have already pointed out, congregate settings like detention conditions do not allow individuals to observe safe social distancing guidelines, which, especially during a global health pandemic, increase the risk of accelerating transmission of the virus among detainees and facility staff,” wrote Castro and Vargas.
“Further, we are alarmed by reports that individuals held in detention with symptoms of COVID-19 have reported being denied necessary medical care; some have complained of being placed in solitary confinement; other have been ignored outright,” the added.
While the death rate of detainees is relatively low, the positive testing rate is much higher than for the general population, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress.
CoreCivic built and operates the South Texas Family Detention Center under contract with ICE, and GEO Group operates at least nine ICE processing centers throughout the country.
Castro and Vargas were joined in the letter by Democratic Reps. Ruben Gallego (Ariz.), Nanette Diaz Barragán (Calif.), Adriano Espaillat (N.Y.), Veronica Escobar (Texas), Albio Sires (N.J.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Darren Soto (Fla.), Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (Fla.), Filemon Vela (Texas), Grace Napolitano (Calif.), Henry Cuellar (Texas), Luis Correa (Calif.), Jesús García (Ill.), Jim Costa (Calif.), Jimmy Gomez (Calif.), Linda Sánchez (Calif.), Lucille Roybal-Allard (Calif.), Nydia Velázquez (N.Y.), Pete Aguilar (Calif.), Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), Sylvia Garcia (Texas) and Xóchitl Torres Small (N.M).