Virus Tensions Rising in Immigrant Detention Centers

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Eloy, Ariz. (Photo by Steve Pavey via Detention Watch Network)

HOUSTON (CN) – Hunger strikes. Guards soaking inmates with pepper spray. Unrest over Covid-19 is growing in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers, and advocates are asking the agency to release all detainees to avoid a crisis.

There are around 38,300 people in ICE custody, according to the agency. Eighty of them at a South Texas detention center run by the GEO Group were pepper-sprayed by guards Monday after they refused to return to their bunks, demanding their release because they fear they will contract the coronavirus known as Covid-19.

Immigrants locked up in New Jersey, where the first ICE detainee tested positive for the virus, are on a hunger strike because they say they are only getting one bar of soap per week to use in the shower and wash their hands.

“We all know [hand washing] is one of the ways to battle the disease, that and social distancing,” said Ranit Mishori, senior medical adviser with the nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights.

“But imagine when you don’t have that option. When you live with other people in close proximity in dorm-like facilities, sharing bathrooms, having poor access to soap, to hand sanitizer and poor access to health care. This is exactly the setup that’s ideal for an infectious agent to spread,” she added.

Promoting its new report “Courting Catastrophe: How ICE is Gambling with Immigrant Lives Amid a Global Pandemic,” the Detention Watch Network held a press call Thursday in which its director Bárbara Suarez Galeano said changes ICE has made in the face of the pandemic have cut detainees off.

“It’s really difficult right now to be in touch with people in detention because a couple weeks back ICE announced it was suspending all social visitation for people in detention,” she said.

To deal with the pandemic, ICE says it is delaying mass arrests of undocumented people and focusing on those whose criminal records mandate they be put behind bars and its agents will not make arrests at hospital.

“Individuals should not avoid seeking medical care because they fear civil immigration enforcement,” the agency said on its website.

A detainee talks on the phone at ICE’s Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., in November 2019. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

But Mishori said the lack of transparency from ICE and its contractors about how they are preparing for an outbreak inside their prisons is troubling because the agency has a bad track record of containing infectious diseases and has seen a recent spike in deaths.

“As of March 23, 2020, 10 people have died in ICE custody in fiscal year 2020, more than the number of lives lost the entire previous fiscal year,” the Detention Watch Network says in its report, in which it calls on ICE to immediately release all detainees.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports President Donald Trump’s efforts to curtail immigration, said the Detention Watch Network and other groups are trying to exploit Covid-19 for their goal of ending all immigration enforcement.

“Unlike others who are in detention, those in ICE custody can be released at any time by choosing to return home,” its spokesman Ira Mehlman said in an email.

More than 3,000 doctors signed a letter to ICE Acting Director Matthew Albence this month, urging the agency to release elderly and mentally ill people, pregnant women and those with serious underlying health problems that put them at higher risk of dying from Covid-19.

The doctors say a mumps outbreak from September 2018 to August 2019 started with five immigrants and spread to 900 inmates and guards at 57 ICE detention centers.

“With a mortality rate 10 times greater than the seasonal flu and a higher R0 (the average number of individuals who can contract the disease from a single infected person) than Ebola, an outbreak of COVID-19 in immigration detention facilities would be devastating,” the letter states. (Parentheses in original.)

Two medical experts who work for the Department of Homeland Security, ICE’s parent organization, are also sounding the alarm.

Citing media reports that ICE has placed inmates in Aurora, Colorado, in quarantine due to possible exposure to the coronavirus, physician Scott Allen and epidemiologist Josiah Rich told lawmakers in a March 19 letter that people arrested solely for immigration violations should be released.

“Those who contract COVID-19 with symptoms that require medical intervention will need to be treated at local hospitals, thus increasing the risk of infection to the public at large and overwhelming treatment facilities,” the doctors wrote.

Immigrant advocates have described ICE prisons as a tinder box and ticking bomb.

“The bomb is here and it’s about a week from exploding,” Nashville immigration attorney Andrew Free said Thursday on Detention Watch Network’s press call.

The GEO Group said it learned Monday that a guard at its Montgomery Processing Center, a Houston-area prison its runs for ICE, had tested positive for Covid-19.

“Three additional employees have been advised to self-quarantine at home. Additionally, one detainee has been isolated from the general population in the medical area at the facility,” the company said in a statement.

Pablo Paez, the company’s vice president, said in an email GEO’s staff are following guidance given by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when asked if they are wearing protective gear.

Mishori with Physicians for Human Rights said ICE and its prison contractors need to be more open about how they are preparing for what could become a full-blown crisis.

“We want to know what the conditions are and what plans are being made to transfer those who become very ill,” she said.

According to health officials, about 15% of people who contract the virus will need to be hospitalized and 5% may need an ICU bed and possibly a ventilator.

“So what happens to these people? Are they just going to be left alone and sick in a detention facility? What kinds of agreements are made with local hospitals and with local health departments?” Mishori said. “The bottom line is there’s a lot that needs to happen, but we don’t have the information. We don’t know. There’s no transparency to tell us or the detainees what the plans are.”

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