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ICE’s COVID-19 test figures hint at health crisis in detention

Agency tested more than 300 detainees for virus. Results for more than one-third came back positive.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has tested more than 300 detainees for the COVID-19 virus and 124 of them were positive, or more than one-third, CQ Roll Call learned Friday, raising concern among immigration advocates that the actual number of ill detainees held by the agency is far greater.

ICE, which currently has 32,000 people in custody, confirmed that tests have been given to more than 300 detainees. However, at least two other sources briefed on the agency’s COVID-19 operations quoted a range from around 200 to nearly 400 when asked by CQ Roll Call about test numbers.

Late Friday night, the House Oversight and Reform Committee released its notes from a briefing with Matthew Albence, the acting director of ICE, in which Albence said 400 people had so far been tested, but noted the agency did not always test people before deporting them back to their home countries.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., who chairs the panel’s civil rights and civil liberties subcommittee, on Friday said the briefing left him troubled: “It confirmed that its testing of detainees and staff is as sporadic and flawed as the federal government’s overall approach to public testing.”

ICE’s public tally on its website Friday said the total number of COVID-19 positive detainees was 105, and that 25 detention staff and 81 employees not assigned to detention facilities have also tested positive. But on Friday evening, ICE informed congressional staff that 19 additional detainees had tested positive. Once a detainee tests positive, everyone in contact with the person is isolated together in their living spaces and on lockdown for most of the day, ICE has previously said.

Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy analyst at the advocacy group American Immigration Council, said the number of tests was shockingly low and noted that more than three weeks have passed since the first person in ICE detention tested positive.  

“Testing barely 1 percent of people in the weeks since then demonstrates a shocking level of negligence on the part of ICE, and a near-total disregard for the health and safety of the people it is detaining,” he said. “If almost a third of people tested have been infected with COVID-19, that suggests that the real numbers are likely far higher.”

On its COVID-19 webpage, ICE said it isolates detainees who develop respiratory symptoms and fever and observes them for “a specified time period.” It said its medical staff also monitors for 14 days detainees who meet the risk criteria for the virus, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and ICE said it encourages facilities to isolate new entrants for 14 days.

Medical staff consult with “the local health department, as appropriate, to assess the need for testing,” the website reads, and is done “in line with CDC guidance.” 

Other advocates have pointed to the quick pace with which confirmed cases have grown, from six on April 2 to 105 cases on Friday.   

ICE’s tally does not include contract staff or detainees who may have tested positive for COVID-19 after leaving agency premises.

A declaration filed Wednesday in federal court by an ICE official said that the agency did not track information on contractors working in facilities with ICE detainees who had developed COVID-19, but said some contractors had gotten sick with the virus and died.

“ICE learned that a number of non-ICE employees (contractors) in facilities that hold ICE detainees have contracted COVID-19, and some of them died from COVID-19,” Russell Hott, acting assistant director for the Custody Management Division in ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations department, wrote in the document. 

The declaration was submitted as a part of a lawsuit, Fraihat v. ICE, that argues that the agency fails to provide appropriate medical care or mental health services to detainees. The case was originally filed in 2019, but a federal judge on Thursday allowed it to proceed as a class action. 

ICE earlier this month announced it had identified 600 detainees considered vulnerable to COVID-19 and was considering their release on a “case-by-case” basis. As of April 10, it had released 693, according to Hott’s declaration.

He also noted that some detainees were held in facilities not run by ICE — local jails, state prisons and other federal institutions — where inmates had contracted and died from complications of COVID-19. Because these inmates were not in ICE custody, the agency did not have the exact number of such deaths, Hott said. 

ICE, nevertheless, continued to transfer detainees between facilities “in response to its legal obligation to detain non-citizens with certain criminal convictions who are subject to mandatory detention,” Hott wrote. 

ICE detainees are held in civil, not criminal, detention. 

According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a transparency research organization at Syracuse University, six out of 10 ICE detainees in March 2020 had no criminal records. One in 10 detainees had a conviction for a crime ICE considered serious, according to TRAC’s analysis of data obtained through public records requests. 

Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., who sits on the House Judiciary and Homeland Security committees, said Wednesday that she opposed “just letting people in ICE detention centers go unless there’s really some reason we should leave them go.”

Democrats “seem to want to prioritize illegal immigrants over U.S. citizens,” she said on a Newsmax television show hosted by former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.

A day earlier, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., unveiled legislation to force the release of at-risk immigrants in government detention centers, citing public health risks related to keeping such individuals confined in enclosed spaces amid a pandemic.

The measure “just asks for measures of the most basic humanity for immigrants, including those in detention, to be given the resources and access to the same public health precautions that we’ve all been following over the past few week,” said Jayapal, who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus. 

Booker added that by “incarcerating those people, you don’t just put their lives at risk, but you also put the lives at risk of Americans who work in detention facilities.”

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