COVID-19 infections among people held in U.S. immigrant detention facilities are skyrocketing. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reported higher-than-ever rates of COVID-19 infections among those held in their custody, reaching more than 50 times the positivity rate of the general U.S. population.
Even during the pandemic, ICE has continued to detain people with no regard for the health of those held in its detention centers. During the first year of the pandemic, ICE detained about 138,000 people in facilities that cannot possibly accommodate proper social distancing. Detainees report horrific conditions inside facilities due to inadequate healthcare, lack of personal protective equipment like masks, overcrowding and poor nutrition. Last year, detainees went on hunger strike at Otay Mesa Detention Center in California to protest ICE’s blatant abuse and were pepper-sprayed in retaliation. These examples are only a few in the list of human rights violations committed by ICE with impunity.
Some detainees are rightfully suing ICE for these inhumane conditions. On June 29, ICE transferred seven detainees in the process of suing ICE from a COVID-free facility in Pennsylvania to an Alabama facility with an active COVID-outbreak — essentially threatening their lives simply for exercising their legal right to seek redress in court. Judges have also ended up rejecting appeals for release despite acknowledging the terrible conditions. Instead, courts have placed the burden of proof on detainees to prove that being released will save them from death due to COVID-19.
Public health experts have long pointed out that COVID-19 testing is largely ineffective in the holding facilities since detainees are tested during booking, before they are exposed to the overcrowded conditions. In March this year, ICE reported 10,000 people tested positive across its 127 facilities nationwide. Such a high number of infected individuals can bring a healthcare system to the brink of collapse even in the general population.
ICE continuing to hold people in these conditions is nothing short of utter cruelty. They should be released immediately. At least in the general public, mass vaccination efforts can mitigate cases that lead to hospitalization and death, but so far ICE has no real plan of action to vaccinate everyone in their custody.
The science of preventing persistent outbreaks of COVID-19 is clear: proper masks, frequent testing, vaccination and social distancing. None of these conditions can possibly be met within detention centers as ICE continues to imprison more and more immigrants and violate their most fundamental human rights. The struggle to release all those held in ICE custody is more important than ever — lives hang in the balance.