RELEASE: Federal Immigration Officials Must Act Now To Stop Further Coronavirus Outbreaks at Detention Facilities

Washington, D.C. — As the coronavirus spreads fast at detention facilities across the country, the poor response of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is leaving tens of thousands of detainees, facility staff, and communities vulnerable to the pandemic. This is the main finding of a new column published today by the Center for American Progress.

While social distancing measures help reduce the spread of COVID-19, these practices are largely impossible in immigration detention facilities, where overcrowding is common, and the lack of sanitation options aggravate the risk of getting sick. Some state and local jurisdictions have been taking smart and safe measures to decrease their detained populations, but ICE has been slow in its response.

As a consequence, 490 positive cases of COVID-19 have been reported by the agency as of April 30 among detained people, while there have been 36 positive cases among ICE’s own employees at detention facilities. However, both figures are misleadingly low because ICE is testing far too few people and is underreporting positive cases among both detainees and correctional staff.

“ICE’s refusal to take necessary public health measures to reduce the risk of further outbreaks in its facilities is jeopardizing the lives of detained people and facility staff,” says Tom Jawetz, vice president of Immigration Policy at CAP and co-author of the column. “The agency has been slow and ad hoc in considering detainee releases, and its ‘cohorting,’ transfer, and deportation policies are contributing to the spread of the virus throughout the country and the world. ICE’s actions are making a bad situation worse, and as the problem grows and spreads, it will continue to spill over beyond facility walls and potentially squander the sacrifices that hundreds of millions of Americans are making by practicing social distancing to protect our health care system from becoming overwhelmed.”

Furthermore, ICE has been deporting people infected with the virus to Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia, and Haiti, countries not prepared to handle additional COVID-19 cases, amplifying the health crisis in the Western Hemisphere.

“ICE’s actions are reckless and wrong. It is exporting the virus to countries that are unprepared and less equipped than us to address this major emergency,” says Sofia Carratala, special assistant for Immigration Policy at CAP and co-author of the column. “It is urgent for ICE to adopt comprehensive policies to promote public health among detainees but also to protect their own employees. Just this week, two guards at a facility in Louisiana died after contracting COVID-19, and several of their relatives are now exhibiting symptoms.”

Related resources:

To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.

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