Under the Trump administration, underfunded and inhumane ICE detention facilities have faced well-earned waves of criticism as reports have emerged indicating a lack of basic medical necessities and an ongoing failure to provide personal hygiene items like soap or toothpaste. Despite the pandemic leading to a renewed outcry from many immigrants and advocates demanding improved facility conditions, the agency continues these cruel practices as it fails to protect detainees from the spread of COVID-19. Subsequently, outbreaks in detention centers have run rampant, spilling into areas surrounding these facilities and putting the general public at risk. The government’s refusal to provide essential healthcare and follow its own guidance in social distancing has created a crisis within a crisis, as the virus infects detained immigrants at an alarming rate.
ICE detention centers are some of the most overcrowded, and unhygienic government holding facilities in the country — a condition which is abhorrent in normal circumstances and unconscionable during a global pandemic. Detainees are often forced into large holding rooms with thousands of other immigrants as they await the adjudication of their immigration case. Sometimes they are held for a matter of days, while others might be in detention for a number of years. While they remain these facilities, they are often denied necessary medication, routine checkups, and access to emergency medical facilities, making these centers hotspots for virus outbreaks even before the recent pandemic. These crowded conditions and ruthless housing methods continued amidst the pandemic, and many reports indicate that government workers in these centers were not provided with adequate protective equipment like masks and gloves.
To make matters worse, transfers between detention facilities are incredibly common and regularly transcontinental. These random relocation policies often result in hundreds of detainees changing locations several times in one week.There is no evidence that ICE has started testing immigrants before these transfers occur, and reports indicate that they have moved detainees displaying symptoms of the virus without any quarantine or social distancing procedures in place.
As of May 4, ICE reported that it had only tested 1,285 detainees, despite having close to 30,000 immigrants in custody. Of those detainees tested, about half were determined to be infected. Comparatively, about 20 percent of the more than 7 million COVID-19 tests conducted nationwide have come back positive, indicating that ICE has only been testing the most severe cases. This signals that the actual number of those in detention with the virus is significantly higher and climbing everyday.
The government’s refusal to properly take care of immigrants in their care exacerbates the public health crisis for everyone, since detention officers and other workers walk in and out of these centers every day. Earlier this month, news broke that two officers at the Richwood Correctional Center in Monroe, Louisiana died of COVID-19 after they were barred from wearing face masks. This week, a detainee at the Otay Mesa Detention Center died after testing positive. Although this is the first reported death of a detainee from complications due to COVID-19, because so few immigrants are being tested for the virus, it is likely that others have also passed away without the incident being reported.
Due to a general lack of testing and efforts to trace the virus’s spread, it is impossible to know how many detained immigrants, government employees, and individuals in surrounding areas are in danger from these outbreaks. However, with the infection rate as high as it is, a severe outbreak of this nature inevitably cannot be contained with the current procedures in place. What is worse, is that these centers are often located in rural, isolated areas, with inadequate healthcare facilities that are already overrun with sick patients.
As these inhumane practices continue, immigration advocates are calling for increased funding for medical care in detention centers and for the release of many immigrants, particularly those who are physically vulnerable to the virus. Although ICE claimed to be taking steps to reduce the number of those in detention, very little movement has actually occurred and the fact remains that over 30,000 immigrants remain in crowded facilities without proper care.
Trump and his administration have failed the American public by inadequately addressing the crisis at-hand, and continue to do so by refusing to provide necessary care to those in immigration detention. So long as these xenophobic and inhumane practices remain in place, everyone in our society will continue to suffer and face a greater risk of infection.