The deadly coronavirus spreading in the United States poses a unique threat to institutions crowded with people: prisons, shelters and immigration detention centers.
As of Sunday, 61 people in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, the agency reported, a number that has more than doubled since last week. Nineteen staffers at facilities in Colorado, Louisiana, New Jersey, Ohio and Texas have been diagnosed with the virus.
Detainees who have tested positive “have been quarantined and are receiving care,” ICE said in a statement. Those who may have been exposed to them “are being monitored for symptoms,” the agency said.
Civil rights groups, immigrant advocates and lawyers are calling for the release of immigration detainees — an emptying of detention facilities that advocates say should last until the public-health crisis recedes.
“I’m in a panic,” a detainee at the Farmville Detention Center, a privately owned facility in Prince Edward County, Va., said in Spanish during a phone interview earlier this month. The man, from El Salvador, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. “The virus is affecting everyone globally, but here in Farmville, we are panicking because we have no security. We are trying everything we can to leave, to be with our families, where we can be safe.”
Crowded facilities make social distancing impossible as detainees sleep in dormitories with dozens of others. Bunk beds are arranged in clusters. Bathrooms are shared. Hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes have been hard to find, according to several detainees, lawyers and advocates. Opportunities to shower or wash hands are limited.
Information about preventing the spread of the coronavirus — stay at least six feet from others, avoid face-touching and wash hands frequently — has been in short supply. Some migrants have seen placards on the wall that instruct them to cover their mouth in the crook of their elbow if they cough or sneeze. Others say staffers have not mentioned the virus or its dangers. Some detainees said officials told them the virus, which has killed more than 21,000 people in the United States, is “fake news.”
“They only know what they see about the virus on television,” said Hilda Jorge Perez, 39, whose husband, Tony Augustin, has been detained at an ICE facility in Richwood, La., since he was picked up in a workplace raid last year. “No one is using masks; nothing is being disinfected. In the [detention center], the guards come and go in the same clothes, they touch everything without sanitizer. It’s a time bomb.”
Immigrant advocates have reported hunger strikes at several ICE centers over the past month, although ICE disputes those numbers.
Several ICE detainees at York County Prison in York, Pa., and at the South Texas ICE Processing Center in Pearsall, Tex., were considered to be on a hunger strike last month after refusing meals for more than 72 consecutive hours. ICE protocol defines a hunger strike as a detainee’s refusing to eat nine meals in a row.
About 100 detainees at the Farmville center joined in a hunger strike at the end of March that advocates say was cut short when detention center officials locked two organizers of the demonstration in solitary confinement. While advocates said the refusal of food lasted from March 31 through April 2, ICE spokeswoman Kaitlyn Pote said it did not meet the official definition of a hunger strike.
Immigrant advocates and lawyers said other hunger strikes occurred at three ICE detention centers in New Jersey after a guard at one facility tested positive for the coronavirus, although ICE said none of those demonstrations lasted the requisite 72 hours to be classified by the agency as hunger strikes.
Detainees at Farmville — about 160 miles southwest of Washington — say they suspect there might be coronavirus cases at the detention center, even though ICE says no positive cases have been detected there. Detainees who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they fear retaliation from guards and immigration officials said staff members have been donning masks and gloves when entering one of the facility’s nine dorms.
Lawyers who represent multiple Farmville detainees said they have heard that the entire dorm — where more than 60 people sleep — has been quarantined. In other parts of the facility, detainees and their lawyers said, people with violent coughs remain in the general population.
“There’s no separation between the sick and the healthy, whether their symptoms are corona-related or not,” said Heain Lee, a lawyer who represents multiple clients at the Farmville facility. “Farmville management has told us that it’s just gossip and rumors, that they’re doing everything they can, but it’s impossible that all these detainees are lying about the same things they say are going on. I’ve heard from multiple people that there are coughing and sick people in their dorms that are not being kicked out.”
ICE said in a statement it “is actively working with state and local health partners to determine whether any detainee requires additional testing or monitoring to combat the spread of the virus.”
ICE declined to comment specifically on Farmville but pointed to the agency’s coronavirus protocol, which states that facilities are grouping people who might have been exposed to the virus and limiting their exposure to others. ICE also advises its facilities to “maximize social distancing as much as practicable” by staggering meal times and recreation activities.
Coronavirus testing is coordinated with local health departments. A detainee who tests positive is separated from the rest of the population, while those needing more advanced medical care are transferred to hospitals.
The agency provides detainees with soap for the shower and hand soap for sinks, the guidance says, as well as “alcohol-based sanitizer in visitor entrances, exits, waiting areas and to staff and detainees in the secure setting whenever possible.”
But lawyers who represent detainees at Farmville, which houses nearly 600 migrants, said the detention center is unprepared for the pandemic.
“It’s a really bad situation, and it’s really evident that nothing was done to prepare,” said Eileen Blessinger, a D.C.-based immigration attorney who has several clients at Farmville. “I’m really concerned for them.”
Coronavirus tests are not being administered to all who need them, lawyers and advocates said. Social visitation and facility tours have been suspended nationwide, but detainees’ attorneys are allowed inside.
Several lawyers who have visited clients in immigration detention centers in recent weeks said they were not screened for coronavirus symptoms before entering. More than two dozen detainees at the Farmville facility wrote a letter last month to U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr pleading for their release.
The American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter earlier this month to the Department of Homeland Security demanding that ICE temporarily release migrants in civil detention for the duration of the public-health crisis. The ACLU has also urged ICE field offices, operators of private prisons and local elected officials around the country to suspend immigration enforcement and release those in custody.
“Immigration detention should not be a death sentence,” Andrea Flores, the deputy director of policy in the ACLU’s Equality Division, said in a statement. “This extraordinary public health crisis compels an extraordinary response.”
A clinician at Brown University and an infectious-disease specialist at the University of California at Riverside wrote a letter to federal lawmakers warning that if ICE continues to hold migrants and transfer them between facilities, as is common practice, the agency could be contributing to the spread of the coronavirus.
Several members of Congress, including House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), also have called for the release of some immigration detainees.
ICE detains nearly 38,000 people in more than 130 private and state-run facilities across the country. The detention centers operate with minimal public oversight and house a range of people — some entered the United States legally, and others entered without authorization; some committed crimes, and others have no criminal records.
ICE has previously struggled to contain infectious diseases that enter its detention centers.
Mumps outbreaks tore through 57 detention centers in 19 states in the past two years, according to a government report on outbreaks in the nation’s immigration system. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that the mumps virus sickened 898 detainees and 33 staff members.
A federal judge in the District last week ordered ICE to disclose how many petitions for release the agency has granted or denied to migrants who are considered at higher risk of dying from the coronavirus.
ICE had previously directed its field offices to reassess custody of anyone over 60 and those of any age with chronic illnesses that compromise their immune systems.
Max Lewis Meyers, an immigration lawyer at the public-service Mississippi Center for Justice, said that keeping his clients locked in detention centers may pose a greater risk to public health than allowing them to return to their families.
“I don’t know how DHS could think it’s fair or logical to use up hospital beds in Louisiana — which is already going through the thick of this pandemic at the moment — for nonresidents who get sick because they were kept in a facility when they could have just been sent home,” he said.