by Anika Prakash
As COVID-19 continues to spread across the United States, those within U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers have been hit particularly hard, in large part due to the agency’s rampant mistreatment and neglect of its detainees. In November, a study in The Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that COVID-19 case rates among ICE detainees were over 13 times higher than rates among the general public. Considering that ICE has been undercounting COVID-19 cases and deaths, this difference could potentially be even more drastic.
A new report from Detention Watch Network released in early December shows that ICE is responsible for nearly 5.5% of all COVID-19 cases within the United States, calling the areas in and around detention centers “hotbeds of infection.” Sadly, these high rates of infection could have been avoided had it not been for ICE’s severe mismanagement, which included not releasing medically vulnerable detainees, not following COVID-19 safety guidelines, failing to report infections, not testing frequently, and forcing staff to work even if they were experiencing symptoms, among other failures. Not only is ICE responsible for higher rates of infection within these centers themselves, but also within surrounding communities, causing hundreds of thousands of new infections.
Although ICE maintains that it has been following COVID-19 guidelines and taking appropriate precautions within its detention centers, evidence easily disproves this. In fact, as early as June of this year, the agency had already admitted that it would not be able to fully adhere to social distancing guidelines, instead recommending that detainees sleep “head-to-feet,” a practice which nowhere near sufficiently mitigates the risk of transmission. Despite ongoing calls from numerous health and immigrant rights organizations to improve ICE’s practices and better protect detainees from the virus, the agency has clearly not made the necessary changes to mitigate the spread of this dangerous disease.
Not only has ICE propagated the spread of COVID-19 within the United States, it has also increased COVID-19 case rates abroad by continuing deportations to Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico, El Salvador, and India, all of which had high case rates and insufficient medical resources to begin with. In fact, during the spring, people deported from the United States constituted nearly 20% of all known COVID–19 cases in Guatemala.
In April, a federal judge had ordered ICE to release all high-risk detainees to protect them from the virus. However, not many people knew about this ruling, and ICE did not do its part in informing detainees and their families of this decision. The ruling, which came from the case Fraihat, et al. v. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, granted this protection to pregnant inmates, those over the age of 55, and those with serious underlying health conditions.
Given ICE’s long-standing track record of abuse and neglect, as well as its continued failure to respond to COVID-19 appropriately, it is highly unlikely it will improve the safety of these detention centers anytime soon. Although health and immigrant rights organizations have been working overtime to try and help detainees, ICE refuses to cooperate by making the appropriate changes. The best that can be done now is to encourage people whose medically vulnerable family or community members are detained to try and utilize this court decision to get them released.
On Tuesday, Dec. 15 at 7 p.m. EST, United We Dream will be hosting a community training webinar along with the Southern Poverty Law Center, in which they will explain how to submit a request for release on behalf of any medically vulnerable person currently in ICE custody. If you are interested in attending, you can sign up at this link.
Although COVID-19 has had a drastic impact on the United States as a result of both politicians who have not enforced, and citizens who have not upheld, safety guidelines, those who are detained — both in prisons and in immigration detention centers — have been especially exposed to this virus due to major institutional failures and mismanagement. Ideally, the burden should lie upon ICE to correct its behavior, but there is not much more we can do to hold it accountable. As increasing numbers of detainees become infected and die, we cannot wait for the agency any longer. Now, our best option is for family and community members to learn how to get medically vulnerable detainees out as soon as possible, before the situation becomes even worse.
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