U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has put up a giant smokescreen that conceals its faulty response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The lack of action that ICE is taking to protect its detainees is starting to emerge due to Freedom of Information Act filings from organizations like the ACLU.
It’s unfortunate that it’s necessary to file a Freedom of Information Act Request from a large federal agency like ICE that's supposed to exhibit professionalism and transparency. What's even more unfortunate is that ICE's recent efforts to cover up its response to COVID-19 further contributes to its reputation as an organization that lacks oversight and accountability.
Let's begin by unpacking the impact that COVID-19 has had on immigration detention centers so we can understand why ICE's recent behavior is so dangerous.
The Impact of COVID-19 in Detention Centers
While the negative effects of COVID-19 are widespread, the pandemic impacts vulnerable populations like migrants the most, as the conditions in ICE detention centers are not conducive to social distancing. Unsanitary and overcrowded detention center conditions led to 20% of all ICE detainees testing positive for COVID-19 this past August.
Access to medical attention and testing during the COVID-19 pandemic should be a basic human right. As COVID-19 rapidly spreads through overpopulated ICE detention centers, detainees have reported that detention officials deny people's requests for testing and proper medical care. ICE's lack of desire to improve their response to COVID-19 doesn't only affect detainees—it affects their staff as well. Three officers died due to COVID-19 complications between April and May.
ICE's unwillingness to disclose accurate information on their response to COVID-19 is one of the main reasons why their detention centers are turning into a death sentence. Data postings from ICE back in May claimed that the number of detainees testing positive for COVID-19 was larger than the actual amount of people tested. Data irregularities make it difficult to organize a proper COVID-19 response plan. Accurate data reflects how much intervention is required to improve a COVID-19 hot spot and provides the opportunity for officials to evaluate the improvement effort's progress over time.
Let's take a closer look at how ICE's lack of transparency fuels the COVID-19 fire in detention centers.
ICE's Lack of Transparency
There are plenty of red flags with ICE's behavior during this pandemic. ICE has banned Congress oversight tours, discontinued social visits, and made it more difficult for detainees to access legal assistance. ICE's failure to provide timely and accurate information on their response to the problem of COVID-19 in their detention centers is causing the problems within their facilities to grow.
We've seen an ACLU case where ICE's Deputy Assistant Director for Healthcare Compliance swore that all detainees in Maryland detention centers with COVID-19 symptoms received testing. After the court reviewed ICE's records, the statement that ICE's Deputy Assistant Director for Healthcare Compliance was proved to be false.
A case brought on by the ACLU of Ohio reflected that the 40 snapshots of temperature readings that ICE provided on behalf of the Morrow County Jail didn't show any detainee cases with fevers. Eight of the temperature measurements were below 96 degrees. The low-temperature readings that ICE provided signal submission of inaccurate readings.
If you need any more convincing that ICE's actions display an attempt to cover up scathing information, there have been many instances where ICE has blocked local governments from releasing COVID-19 data. New Jersey is an example of a state where these types of blockages have occurred.
The trend we've been seeing is ICE's lack of transparency makes it difficult for the public to receive a full picture of what's going on behind closed doors. We cannot make progress without accurate and complete information.
ICE's recent behavior becomes increasingly disturbing when you learn why their detainees are so vulnerable to COVID-19.
Why These Populations Are So Vulnerable to COVID-19
We're all aware of the fact that Coronavirus can be deadly for people with pre-existing conditions like hypertension and cancer. People that live with pre-existing conditions often go above and beyond to isolate themselves and stay healthy during this pandemic.
Suppose you're a person with a pre-existing condition staying within one of ICE's detention centers. In that case, you often don't have the same opportunities to isolate yourself due to problems like facility overcrowding.
It's not difficult to have empathy for ICE detainees with pre-existing conditions, as these individuals live in fear that COVID-19 will kill them. We should be seeing ICE prioritize releases for at-risk individuals to reduce detention center populations and mitigate COVID-19's damage, but instead, we see haphazard attempts to lower detainee health risks.
In ICE's COVID-19 response requirements report, there was an admission that social distancing may not be possible at all in certain areas like sleeping quarters. ICE's best attempt at a solution for the lack of distancing in sleeping quarters was to recommend head-to-feet sleeping arrangements. We can do better.
Last April, the Homeland Security Inspector General's office conducted a survey that led to shocking findings. Officials running ICE detention centers expressed worries that they didn't have enough protective gear, hand sanitizer, or space to conduct proper quarantines during outbreaks. Detainees from La Palma say they were forced to clean medical wards without proper personal protective equipment, while Eloy detainees complained about lack of shower access.
The cruelty of ICE isn't exactly breaking news.
The Cruelty of ICE
Migrant detention centers have an extensive history of abuse and neglect that began long before the COVID-19 pandemic. ICE detention facilities have shown an apparent link between medical abuse, racism, and immigration.
In 2009, a report from the Washington Post emerged showing that 83 deaths of people in immigration custody have occurred since ICE's founding in 2003. HIV and AIDS complications attributed to many of the 83 deaths. More recently, over 24 migrants have died while in Customs and Border Protection custody during the Trump administration.
ICE chooses to abuse their power on a near-constant basis. This past March, a U.K. citizen was in the U.S. on a valid visa when he decided to cross into Mexico to enjoy a dinner. Upon the U.K. citizen's return to the U.S. border, he was detained by Customs Border Patrol and transferred to an ICE detention center for days before being denied entry into the U.S. and being forced to fly back to the U.K. himself. The U.K. citizen's nephew believes that what happened to his uncle was a result of racial profiling since his uncle was born in Afghanistan, has brown skin, and speaks English with an accent. This incident was an abuse of power and an evident racial profiling case since the U.K. citizen was law-abiding.
If ICE isn't going to take active measures to protect its detainees, we must do our part to help. Change starts with a desire to help. You can follow through on your desire to help by understanding specific actions you can take.
What You Can Do to Help
One of the easiest ways to help immigrants is to support organizations that assist families at the border. Immigrant families stuck at the border need food, water, shelter, bonds, and legal help. The ACLU of Texas published a list of organizations you can donate to that are taking active measures to assist families at the border. If you'd rather donate your time, consider volunteering for organizations like the Immigration Justice Campaign and Stand With Immigrants.
Stay on Top of What's Happening in ICE Detention Centers
Understanding what's happening in immigrant detention centers will support your ability to show up and speak out against the injustice that's occurring within ICE during COVID-19. Stay on top of what's happening in ICE Detention Centers by tuning in to DCP podcasts. Our platform features shows like Make It Plain that cover politics, breaking news, social justice, and human rights issues.