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Immigrant Detention Centers Fail to Protect Immigrants Against COVID-19

Posted by Matthew Green | Jan 08, 2021 | 0 Comments

In June, we wrote about the COVID-19 outbreaks in detention centers. Over six months later, the coronavirus pandemic continues to infect the global population, and immigrants held in custody at ICE detention facilities are no exception.  In fact, a new report calls these facilities “hotbeds of infection.”

The report, released by the Detention Watch Network, a national coalition to abolish immigration in the United States, analyzes the COVID-19 cases in counties and multi-county economic areas that have ICE detention centers. The following are three of its key findings:

  1. Counties with ICE detention centers were more likely to report COVID-19 cases earlier in the pandemic and more likely to confront a serious outbreak (at least 15 cases), a major outbreak (more than 250 cases) and a health care emergency (more than 2,500 confirmed cases). 
  2. Nearby counties to a detention facility were more likely to confront a serious COVID-19 outbreak in the spring of 2020
  3. Between May and August, ICE detention facilities were responsible for over 245,000 COVID-19 cases throughout the country. These cases were concentrated in multicounty economic areas where ICE facilities are located.  If the cases linked to ICE were the reported caseload of a country, that country would have ranked 16th in the world by total cases, outranking Germany, France, and Canada.

The report concludes with a recommendation to ICE to “immediately heed the advice of public health experts by significantly and quickly reducing the number of people in detention; halting enforcement activities; stopping all transfers within the immigration detention system, as well as transfers from state and local jails and prisons; and adopting a moratorium on deportations in conjunction with the previous recommendations.”  Previous recommendations include public health measures like wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), providing adequate soap and disinfectant products to those detained, and regular testing; multiple reports throughout the course of the pandemic have found that ICE has failed to follow through with these guidelines.  In fact, it has gone so far as to evade court orders requiring them to reduce the number of people in detention.

Current Outbreaks: A Look at Texas and California 

In Texas, more than 760 migrant children have tested positive for COVID-19 since March. At least 75 are currently in isolation. According to Houston Public Media, these active cases “are spread out among 23 different Texas Shelters that care for unaccompanied minors,” though they are concentrated in facilities in Houston, San Antonio, and the Rio Grande Valley.  Texas facilities for detained migrants—children and adults alike—account for over 70% of COVID-19 cases migrant shelters across the nation. 

This year has seen low populations in Texas migrant shelters. 1,236 children were held in facilities as of November; statewide capacity is over 7,500.  Despite these numbers, the gravity of the circumstances is nonetheless evident: of those 1,236 children, over 760 have been infected by the virus.  This means that over fifty percent of children held in custody have tested positive and even more have been exposed. In addition to these youths, almost one thousand shelter personnel across the country have also tested positive. 

Federal officials state that hundreds of children have been released to sponsor care.

In California, a growing outbreak in Yuba County Jail has called the attention of immigrant advocates. KQED reports that jail officials closed the facility to visits in response to seven confirmed cases of COVID-19 but that, since then, “the number of people infected has increased to 78, which is more than 30% of the total jail population.”

The population of Yuba County Jail includes those held under county custody as well as immigrants detained by ICE. It is estimated that it houses a total of 235 people, 20 of which are ICE detainees. This is not the first time alarm about jail conditions has been raised during the pandemic: in April, the San Francisco Public Defender's office filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of ICE detainees at the Yuba jail as well as the Mesa Verde detention facility. In addition to this, ICE detainees went on a five-day hunger strike over the summer to draw attention to their circumstances. U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria ruled that ICE detainess could apply for release on a case-by-case basis and that ICE and Yuba County Jail must “take precautions such as keeping detainees out of the older, more crowded side of the jail and isolating COVID-19 symptomatic people.” Despite these orders, protections have begun to erode and those within the jail are now facing an outbreak. 

A San Francisco deputy public defender describes this erosion of these protections: "We saw detainees starting to be moved back into the old side of the jail, and later on [housed] two to a cell…We received reports of symptomatic individuals who were not being isolated and tested as the protocol required. And that just set up the perfect storm for the first positive case that happened about two weeks ago."

A new motion for a temporary restraining order has been filed by the San Francisco Public Defender's Office as part of the lawsuit.  It asks Judge Chhabria to “mandate additional safety protocols inside the facility, including providing weekly testing, individually isolating all symptomatic individuals and releasing people from custody, especially those who are medically vulnerable.”

Litigation is pending but attorneys claim that Yuba County officials seem to “have had absolutely no plan” in case of infection. It is well past the time for jails and immigrant detention centers to heed the advice of reports like that of the Detention Watch Network.

About the Author

Matthew Green

Managing Partner. Green | Evans-Schroeder (formerly Law Offices of Matthew H. Green) focuses on the aggressive defense of immigrants. A native of Arizona, Mr. Green understands the difficulties that immigrants and families of immigrants face when a loved one is charged with a crime. He knows how frightening it can be for some...


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