The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion ICE is the superspreader agency

A Honduran detainee at an ICE facility on Dec. 20, 2019.
A Honduran detainee at an ICE facility on Dec. 20, 2019. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

U.S. IMMIGRATION and Customs Enforcement, the federal government’s deportation agency, also oversees scores of immigration jails around the country, housing thousands of detainees, that have been petri dishes for the pandemic. Through negligence, indifference or bureaucratic cluelessness, perhaps no agency of government has been responsible for more super-spreader sites, policies and practices than ICE.

At La Palma Correctional Center in Arizona, which houses roughly 1,100 ICE detainees, more than 170 are currently suffering from covid-19. As infections began to spread a year ago, a small group of La Palma detainees protested the lack of protective equipment. Guards at the facility responded with volleys of pepper spray and chemical agents, according to a report by the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general, which published a photo of the assault. Some were also punished with lengthy stays in segregation.

Since then, roughly 1,000 detainees at La Palma have tested positive for the virus, including those currently afflicted with it. And the inspector general’s report concluded that the facility had ignored guidance on face coverings and social distancing.

Most of the migrants housed in ICE detention facilities have been convicted of no crime; they are generally awaiting hearings in immigration court on civil violations, and few are regarded as dangerous. Over the past year, their numbers have fallen by about 60 percent, to fewer than 16,000, in some cases as a result of releases ordered by judges concerned that the facilities are breeding grounds for covid. No wonder: More than 8 percent of the current detainees have tested positive for the virus. The centers are run by contractors overseen by ICE; neither could have been surprised by the pandemic’s potential for exponential spread. Thousands of detainees were quarantined in 2019 for mumps, measles, the flu and other illnesses, and the arrival of the coronavirus last spring triggered immediate warnings that the nearly 200 ICE immigration jails were at risk.

Despite those red flags, the response by the agency and the private firms running its detention centers was sluggish and inadequate. Nearly 13,000 detainees have tested positive — likely an undercount of the virus’ real spread — and at least nine have died.

A separate, unanswered, question is how many guards, staffers and contractors at the facilities have also tested positive for the disease, and died of it, but the number is certainly significant. Researchers at UCLA School of Law found that major outbreaks of the disease at several ICE facilities in the South and Southwest were mirrored by rapid infections in the surrounding communities. That’s not surprising given that detention centers are often major employers.

ICE insists that it puts the highest priority on the health of its detainees. The truth is that they have been sitting ducks at the agency’s detention centers. One federal judge, alarmed at the spread of covid and the facilities’ lackluster efforts to contain it, ordered the release of migrant children at ICE family detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania last summer. Another federal judge, who ordered releases from an agency facility in California last fall, accused government lawyers representing ICE of making arguments that “might have been actually dishonest.”

ICE has put the lives of thousands at its facilities in jeopardy. It’s a terrible record that should prompt a crackdown by the agency’s new leaders.

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