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Amid pandemic, medically vulnerable people remain trapped in ICE jails

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Across the country, people are doing their part to “flatten the curve” in order to give hospitals and healthcare workers a fighting chance at caring for people infected with COVID-19. It will take a nationwide effort to save lives, and it will take all of us. 

So why has the federal government chosen to overlook immigrant communities, especially those trapped in Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) custody?

We know the virus puts people with serious chronic medical conditions at higher risk of death. Right now, there are thousands of medically vulnerable people who remain locked up in ICE’s cages. We urge our fellow Americans not to forget about them. 

In our collective experience working and volunteering as independent medical evaluators of people detained in ICE jails before the pandemic, we have pored over thousands of pages of medical records documenting patients being harmed — or even killed — because of ICE’s system-wide failure to provide basic medical care and disability accommodations in its facilities. 

Now, ICE’s inadequacy and negligence are compounded by the pandemic. Let’s examine just one case. 

Martín Muñoz is a diabetic man who has been detained at Adelanto Detention Center in California for over two years. According to court documents, ICE once gave Muñoz triple his regular dose of insulin, resulting in an overdose, which can be fatal. Despite ICE’s admission of fault, Mr. Muñoz remains in ICE custody, where he continues to suffer from inadequate care. His diabetes has progressively worsened. 

Diabetes is one of the underlying health conditions that puts individuals at high risk if exposed to COVID-19. Given ICE’s track record, is Mr. Muñoz expected to count on ICE now?

For years, the federal government has overseen a system in which inadequate medical care and patient neglect run rampant. 

But it doesn’t stop there.

ICE allows its contractors to repeatedly violate the civil rights of people in its custody. Deaf people are unable to communicate with medical personnel because their wrists are shackled during appointments. Those who require wheelchairs are placed in solitary confinement without their wheelchairs 

ICE has been able to operate under these procedures — which are appalling — because it has zero accountability to patients or to the larger network of doctors in the U.S. who have sworn an oath to do no harm. 

That’s why ICE’s response to the pandemic has been predictably and woefully insufficient. Detained individuals are reporting that they don’t have soap or hand sanitizer. Their only communication with the outside is relegated to shared phones that aren’t cleaned between each use. Their bathrooms and dorms are shared. It’s simply impossible to practice “social distancing” in detention. 

The squalid conditions in ICE detention centers have given way to outbreaks of infectious diseases before, and now it’s only a matter of time before a full-blown COVID-19 crisis sweeps through detention centers across the country. 

Last year, civil rights groups including Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center (CREEC) filed a nationwide class action lawsuit against ICE. The lawsuit, of which Mr. Muñoz is a plaintiff, outlines story after story of neglect and abuse. 

This litigation seeks an overhaul of the system that allows this abuse. But in the meantime, we’re working with attorneys on the case for more immediate forms of relief. There’s not much time left to act. 

The tragic stories of people like Mr. Muñoz suffering in ICE custody are mounting. His story is just one of thousands. ICE jails nearly 40,000 individuals today, the vast majority of which haven’t even been convicted of a crime. They’re trapped in what other doctors are calling a “tinderbox scenario,” and the first case of someone in ICE detention testing positive COVID-19 has already been reported

If we fail to move swiftly, and if we don’t start releasing people from ICE detention, we will soon watch in horror as the disease spreads inside detention centers and claims lives that could have been protected. 

As physicians on the frontline in the fight against COVID-19, we have first-hand knowledge of the dire situation in our hospitals, which are already experiencing a greater influx of patients. We know the squalid conditions in ICE detention centers, coupled with the agency’s insufficient treatment of detained people, will only lead to greater spread within detention centers. This spread will compound the strain on health care workers and work against our efforts to flatten the curve.

We demand the federal government give us and our patients a fighting chance. 

We must begin releasing people from ICE custody, and we must release them now.

Dr. Catherine Jones is an associate program director at the Tulane University School of Medicine. Dr. Paulina Rebolledo is an assistant professor with dual appointments in the School of Medicine and the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University.


Tags civil rights Coronavirus COVID-19 COVID19 Detention centers ICE Immigration Pandemic Virus

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