A leaked Department of Homeland Security (DHS) coronavirus report reveals that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has placed nine detainees in medical isolation. This report coincides with ICE’s confirmation that a detainee in New Jersey has tested positive for COVID-19. These developments suggest that the coronavirus has begun spreading in ICE facilities, placing ICE’s nearly 40,000 detainees at risk of contracting the deadly disease.
The March 19 DHS report says that in addition to the nine isolated detainees, 24 others in ten cities are being monitored. The report, released by an anonymous federal intelligence official and titled “DHS National Operations Center COVID-19 Placemat,” does not explicitly state which illness the detainees are being monitored for.
The confirmed COVID-19 case in New Jersey is a 31-year-old Mexican immigrant held at Bergen County Jail. Last week, a correctional officer there also tested positive. ICE has suspended immigrant detainee intakes at the facility and quarantined the infected individual.
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, immigration advocates and public health experts have raised concerns about the potential rapid spread of COVID-19 in crowded ICE detention centers. They urged a temporary halt on arrests and the release of detainees in high-risk groups, such as the elderly and those with immunodeficiencies. Other federal immigration agencies have drastically altered their operations—immigration courts have closed or postponed hearings and US Citizenship and Immigration Services has halted all its in-person services. ICE, however, has continued detaining immigrants in the midst of state lockdowns.
Several lawsuits have been filed seeking the release of 50 at-risk immigrants held at ICE detention centers in California, Texas, and Pennsylvania. The suits’ lawyers argue that due to their age or health conditions, these individuals will be in danger if they remain in detention during the coronavirus pandemic.
ICE’s alleged history of substandard medical care has exacerbated advocates’ concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in detention centers. In December 2019, a whistleblower’s report of negligence, incompetent care, and preventable deaths in ICE facilities prompted the House Oversight and Reform Committee to begin an investigation into the care of detainees.
Sources: The Nation 2/24/20; Buzzfeed News 3/24/20; Politico 3/24/20