Coronavirus infections surging in immigration facilities

A border facility housing migrant children
Customs and Border Protection

Cases of COVID-19 are surging in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities, as detainee populations have soared over the past few months.

An analysis by The New York Times found that more than 7,500 cases have been detected since April. That represents more than 40 percent of all coronavirus cases in ICE detention since the start of the pandemic last year.

The rise in infections coincides with a surge in immigrant detention, from 14,000 detainees in April to more than 26,000 at the end of June, according to the Times analysis.

While President Biden has aggressively scaled back interior immigrant detentions, ICE facilities are being used to house detainees apprehended by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at borders and points of entry.

According to an analysis by TRAC, a Syracuse University project that tracks immigration statistics, 82 percent of the detainees in June were apprehended by CBP, not ICE.

While the number of detainees apprehended by CBP plummeted during the heights of the pandemic and rose again as more migrants were apprehended at the border, the number of people detained and held by ICE has slowly tapered off over the past two years and has plateaued at about 4,500 since May.

ICE officials say the increase in infections is directly correlated to the increase in CBP detainees in their care, all of whom are subjected to testing, quarantine and cohorting once in the detention centers.

Prisons, jails and detention centers have been targets of criticism during the pandemic, as populations that could be easily vaccinated have instead been at increased risk of contracting the virus.

“Access to adequate health care in immigration detention centers was a problem before the COVID pandemic, and as the virus still rages in detention centers it’s an extremely urgent issue,” said Rep. Jesús García (D-Ill.).

“People in detention centers are completely dependent on the government for their medical care, and our communities are only safe if we ensure that all people, including immigrants, have access to testing, treatment, and vaccinations,” added García.

Frustration over the lack of detention vaccines is rising given the abundance of doses in the United States, and the fact that nearly 80 percent of all ICE detainees have no prior criminal record, according to TRAC.

“We should be vaccinating everyone in custody to help with the pandemic and to help protect lives,” said Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.), who chairs the border security subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee.

The rise in detainee infections also points to violations in ICE’s detainee protocols, according to the New York Times report.

All incoming detainees are tested for coronavirus and subjected to a 14-day quarantine, procedures that in theory would prevent spread within detention centers.

ICE officials say the bulk of infections comes from CBP intakes, and that in-detention transmissions are rare.

In a statement to The Hill, ICE spokesperson Paige Hughes said: “As part of the Department of Homeland Security’s vaccination efforts, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is further expanding its vaccination efforts to include voluntary vaccinations for individuals in its care and custody. ICE is supporting the efforts of state and local partners by working with its federal partners to receive its own allocation of vaccines for immediate, nationwide distribution and anticipates receiving additional vaccines in the future.”

Transmission of the virus can happen during detainee transportation, and migrants who catch the virus after apprehension may not test positive by the moment of intake to a detention center.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends testing at least five days after potential exposure.

Some Democrats in 2020 called on the Trump administration to set a pandemic moratorium on immigration detention for people who don’t pose a public safety threat, and they are pushing the Biden administration for quicker immigrant detention reform.

“By keeping migrants in crowded and unsafe conditions we place everyone at risk. I will follow up with the Biden administration on this matter to ensure that swift action is taken to protect people in immigrant detention centers from further spread of the Covid virus,” said García.

Updated at 5:09 p.m.

Tags CBP coronavirus infections COVID-19 Immigration and Customs Enforcement Joe Biden
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