ICE’s Inhumane Response to COVID-19

Bryna Koch, MPH

Immigration detention is big business in the US. Seventy-percent of people in immigration detention are in private for-profit centers run by Geo Group or Core Civic. In 2017, these two entities received $985 million in government. In 2014 and 2016 ICE violated federal procurement laws in order to reward Core Civic with a billion dollar contract to run the South Texas Family Detention Center via a pass through with the City of Eloy. Immigration detention is civil confinement for administrative violation of the law raising major concerns about the similarities to criminal detention but lack of due process protections. 

Given the amount of these contracts it may have surprised some that at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic people in ICE detention facilities reported no or limited access to basic hygiene products like masks, disinfectant, or soap. Congregant settings have to take extra precautions and implement robust public health measures to protect their populations. Instead, people in ICE detention are being charged for soap or subjected to violence when they request soap. Women at the Otay Mesa detention center (managed by Core Civic) had been making their own masks with what material they could find and were excited when they heard they would be getting proper masks. However, Core Civic told the women they would only receive the masks if they “agree to ‘hold harmless’ CoreCivic and its agents and employees “from any and all claims that I may have related directly to my wearing the face mask.”

ICE and their for-profit contractors are not providing the necessary supplies and they are not being transparent when reporting their COVID-19 cases among their workforce. According to the Arizona Republic, “the exact number is not known because ICE does not release data on employees infected with the virus who work for private prison companies such as CoreCivic.” In Hudson County New Jersey, ICE hasn’t reported cases of its contractors getting sick because they work for the county or a private health contractor. USA Today reported “ICE data on coronavirus cases is missing a large pool of people – the thousands of private contractors who work as wardens, administrators, guards, doctors, nurses, janitors and cooks inside ICE detention centers. ICE owns and operates only five of the more than 200 facilities that house ICE detainees around the country. The rest of the work is done by private prison companies and jails.”  

ICE’s inhumane response to COVID-19 is causing a public health crisis. Cases in immigration detention centers are growing, including in Eloy, Arizona. Data reported by ICE on testing and cases has significant limitations and may indicate the problem is much more severe than acknowledged. This builds on a pattern of disregard for human life and refusal to take responsibility for public health and safety in its detention centers. ICE has “proven unable or unwilling to provide adequately for the health and safety of those it detains.”

Reports from just the past few years document a pattern of sub-standard care and neglect that are only being worsened by COVID-19. 

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has documented infringement of detainee rights, poor food quality, lack of personal hygiene items and deteriorated housing conditions. A whistleblower memo provided horrific details on medical negligence in ICE facilities including a child who was diagnosed incorrectly with “swimmers ear” but who actually had a rare tumor and infection and whose condition became so severe he had to have part of his skull removed for treatment. The same report describes a man who was bleeding through his skin and was initially treated with aspirin (a blood thinner) instead of appropriate medical care. The memo states “The result was “his coughing up large amounts of blood.” He was taken “in critical condition” to the hospital, where he was “not expected to survive.” Federal inspections have also found serious lapses in healthcare for transgender people. External observers from Physicians for Human Rights found cases of medical neglect and harassment. A Human Rights Watch report found what they call “dangerously substandard medical care” in all but one of the 15 cases of detainee deaths it reviewed. 

Immigrant detainees with factors that put them at risk for COVID-19 should be released. DHS and ICE should return to the use of humanitarian parole for all pregnant women and children. Alternatives to detention programs should be implemented to keep people out of detention. Ultimately, the US Government should end the use of immigration detention facilities all together. 

Action Steps:

  1. Help get people out of detention by donating to an immigration bail fund.
  2. Set up a recurring donation to help organizations that provide legal assistance to people in immigration detention like the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project.
  3. Call your Representative and Senators and demand the release of all immigrants in detention. Use the messaging from the Detention Watch Network. “Over 3,000 doctors and nearly 800 advocates have been sounding the alarm since March that people in immigration detention must be released from detention immediately, knowing that ICE’s system is notorious for its fatally flawed medical care and abysmal conditions that only worsen in times of crisis. The government can and should release all people from detention immediately.”

Read more:

Data on the coronavirus outbreak in immigration detention offer more questions than answers.