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About 900 private ICE detention staff positive for COVID-19

CEOs told congressional panel they followed ICE and CDC guidelines but did not reject transferred detainees for potential coronavirus spread

The CEO of CoreCivic — which operates the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia — and heads of of other private companies running immigration detention centers told Congress that many of their employees have tested positive for COVID-19
The CEO of CoreCivic — which operates the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia — and heads of of other private companies running immigration detention centers told Congress that many of their employees have tested positive for COVID-19 (Alfredo Sosa/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images file photo)

The executives of four private companies running immigration detention centers revealed to Congress that about 900 of their employees have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. 

The companies — GEO Group, CoreCivic, Management & Training Corporation (MTC), and LaSalle Corrections — all contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They reported the infections in response to questions during a hearing Monday by the House Homeland Security Subcommittee for Border Security, Facilitation and Operations.

CoreCivic reported to lawmakers that more than 500 out of its 14,000 employees had tested positive for the virus; GEO Group reported 167 cases out of 3,700 total staff; MTC noted that 73 out of 1,200 had been infected; and LaSalle said 144 out of 3,000 had contracted COVID-19. 

“Detention facilities must be held to a high standard at all times, but in this moment, it is of vital importance,” subcommittee Chairwoman Kathleen Rice of New York said in her opening remarks. “And yet, over the past few months, it is clear that ICE and its contractors have not taken this outbreak seriously and have not treated it aggressively enough.” 

Lawmakers have repeatedly raised concerns about the spread of the virus in ICE facilities, particularly among detainees. More than 3,000 immigrants in ICE custody have tested positive so far, lawmakers noted Monday, but many are no longer in custody.

The public tally on ICE’s website shows that around 950 detainees who have contracted COVID-19 remain in custody. Only 45 employees at ICE’s detention centers are positive, according to agency data, but this excludes the contract employees at the facilities run by the private companies at the hearing and other contractors.  

The executives of the four companies said they were, in large part, following guidance laid out by ICE and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, had put in place screening procedures and hygiene practices, and had made protective gear available.

But in response to questions from Democratic lawmakers, the executives said they did not reject detainees who were transferred in from other facilities because of the possibility of introducing the virus at their centers. They also said they did not have a way to detect cases among people who were not showing symptoms.

“Well, the asymptomatics are probably the most difficult part of this equation, because someone can be asymptomatic, and we don’t catch them through our screening procedures,” Scott Marquardt, CEO of MTC, said in response to questions from Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee.

Advocacy groups that monitor detention centers also submitted statements. The National Immigration Justice Center recently highlighted the case of Immigration Centers of America-Farmville, a facility in Virginia where 70 percent of the detainee population — or more than 200 people — tested positive for COVID-19, according to the statement the agency submitted for the record. 

“A recent spike in COVID-19 cases in ICA-Farmville has raised new concerns about safety and about the facility’s management,” the group said. 

Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., the ranking member of the panel, noted that ICE had reduced its detention populations to 70 percent capacity, but nevertheless urged the executives to increase testing at their facilities to adequately track the spread. 

“We shouldn’t be talking about testing, you know, 5, 10, 20 percent of our incarcerated children of God. We should be pushing to get to 100 percent,” he said “And I encourage you, gentlemen, all to work with Congress and your contracts to make that happen.” 

Higgins also said that he would work with the chairwoman to bring an ICE official testify on the subject in the future. 

ICE did not immediately respond to comments on the issues raised at the hearing. 

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