As the omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus spreads throughout the country at astronomic rates, the United States is bracing itself for a winter surge. Federal officials have implored the public to get vaccinated, and if eligible, to receive a booster shot — now one of the few known ways to mitigate the effects of the omicron variant. Public health officials have warned us all that without prudent action, the rapid spread of COVID-19 will soon overwhelm our local medical resources.
The Biden administration’s plea to take robust preventative steps against COVID-19, however, seems lost on its own Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE currently detains more than 21,000 people each day who are awaiting adjudication of their civil immigration proceedings in approximately 200 facilities nationwide. Through its failure to act, ICE has created detention conditions that present a completely foreseeable public health disaster in the making.
Over the course of the pandemic, ICE’s failure to provide basic safeguards like masks, soap and tests to people in detention has led to multiple superspreader outbreaks around the country. Earlier in the pandemic, COVID-19 spread in immigration detention facilities at rates 20 times higher than in the general public, leading to more than 31,000 people contracting the virus. That was before the even more highly contagious omicron variant, which poses an even greater threat.
Recent evidence shows how quickly the omicron variant can spread in a detention setting: in the space of three days alone, the percentage of people testing positive at Rikers Island Jail went from 1 percent to 9.5 percent the next day, and then to 17 percent.
Even more worrisome is ICE’s failure to develop any nationwide plan to provide COVID-19 booster shots to people held in detention. Two months ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that all people in high-risk settings like detention centers should receive booster shots, but ICE’s current COVID-19 policies make no mention whatsoever about the provision of booster shots. An ICE official recently confirmed that the agency had no plan in place to identify detained people who need booster shots and offer them shots on a system-wide basis, or to provide any education about boosters to people in detention.
The result: Immigrants held in detention centers across the country have reported that they have not received booster shots, even upon request. The limited flow of information into detention centers, moreover, also means that some detained people have no idea of the importance of a booster shot, or only learned the importance of and their eligibility for booster shots from advocacy groups.
The danger of ICE’s indifference to the welfare of immigrants in its custody is even more stark given the agency’s troubled rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. Last year, ICE failed to adopt a comprehensive plan to provide vaccines to those in its custody. Its own COVID-19 policies did not even mention the provision of vaccines until 10 months after vaccines became available, and two months after half the U.S. population had been vaccinated. ICE’s heavy reliance on the less-effective Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which provides little to no protection against omicron, makes even more urgent the need to provide booster shots, particularly with mRNA vaccines, to the thousands of people in ICE detention. ICE must immediately ensure that detained people are provided with vaccines and booster shots, with accessible education about the importance of the vaccine.
Most importantly, ICE should immediately begin a rapid and comprehensive push to decrease the number of people held in immigration detention, and release as many people as possible to protect them — and surrounding communities — from these dangerous conditions. ICE has the full legal authority and continuing responsibility to do so, particularly for people who are medically vulnerable to serious illness from COVID-19. ICE detention facilities are already short-staffed; the spread of the omicron variant will only make things worse.
ICE can and must act quickly and seriously to avert the harm and suffering that will result from this next wave of COVID-19. The question is whether ICE will do so.
Eunice Cho is a senior staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project.