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The United States is now more than six months into a devastating pandemic that has taken the lives of nearly 200,000 Americans. Among the hardest hit in this pandemic have been immigrant men, women and children house in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers.  

This report from Accountable.US seeks to shine a light on the pandemic as experienced in ICE detention facilities, bringing together research on the failures of ICE and its private detention center operators to put in place measures to slow the spread of COVID and protect the men, women and children in its care, as well as their employees.   

Despite the warnings of experts, ICE leadership and private detention center operators failed to act early to mitigate risk and contain outbreaks of COVID-19 in their facilities by implementing the measures we know work like consistent physical distancing, masks and testing. So far this year, more than 5,600 detainees and more than 1,000 ICE and contract employees have been diagnosed with COVID in ICE facilities. This is most likely an undercount as ICE has failed to update its employee statistics for the last three months and they refuse to require their private contractors to publicize that information – even though nearly every ICE detention facility is run by contractors.  

Detention center leadership has steadfastly ignored the pleas of detainees and their loved ones in addition to their own staff who have repeatedly raised the alarm on the threat of COVID in detention facilities. At one facility in Louisiana, two guards were initially prohibited from wearing masks by their employer, private contractor LaSalle Corrections – both were later diagnosed with and died of COVID. Meanwhile, ICE and its contractors continue to exacerbate an already dangerous situation by transferring detainees across facilities, spreading outbreak after outbreak as they go. An infectious disease expert confirmed that the practice was reckless, stating, “you’re basically spreading the problems.” And even as COVID exploded throughout their facilities, contractors like CoreCivic and GEO boasted about their ability to navigate the pandemic better than the government.  

COVID cases have been reported in nearly 100 ICE detention facilities across the country, including: 

  • Otay Mesa Detention Center, in San Diego, which is run by CoreCivic and was the first to report a COVID-related death in ICE custody. A month before the death, Otay Mesa’s warden prohibited a staff member from wearing a mask or gloves, saying “we don’t want to scare the inmates and detainees.”  
  • In Mesa Verde, in California, half of all detainees tested positive for COVID and a judge was forced to order mass testing for detainees and staff after emails showed ICE and its contractors deliberately limited testing. The judge found “there’s no question that this outbreak could have been avoided.”  
  • At CoreCivic’s Eloy facility in Arizona, 250 detainees were diagnosed with COVID as more than half of the detention center’s employees fell ill and a senior officer died. At least one staffer quit, telling CoreCivic the lack of PPE and other mitigation efforts led to an unsafe environment. 
  • In Virginia, ICA-Farmville confirmed 97% of its detainees positive for COVID after it allowed dozens of detainee transfers into its facility in June. In early July, an elderly Farmville detainee died of COVID while waiting for his deportation flight. And in early September, we learned the transfers took place because the Department of Homeland Security needed an excuse to use charter flights to move personnel to respond to protest activity in Washington, DC. 
  • Despite a judge’s order to release children in June, children and their families remain in ICE family detention centers, including at Karnes County Family Residential Center in Texas where 79 detainees have already tested positive for COVID. 

The spread of COVID throughout the ICE detention system has been an unmitigated disaster and the need for relief is dire. Private contractors have been used for decades to ostensibly cut costs while outsourcing responsibility for the detention process and this pandemic has brought that failure into even sharper focus. Moving these processes back under real government accountability and reducing the population that are sent to these facilities are long-term, much-needed solutions.   

There are also immediate changes that can be made to increase transparency including requiring ICE to update its reporting of staff COVID cases and requiring private detention contractors to publicize their staff data in real time, rather than in one-off responses to a patchwork series of lawsuits across the country. Additionally, ICE should immediately comply with judicial orders to release children and other vulnerable populations from the detention centers ICE and its contractors are so clearly ill-equipped to operate safely.

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