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Opinion Migrants at ICE detention centers are sitting ducks because of an inhumane policy

Immigration rights activists protest outside of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters in Washington on July 17.
Immigration rights activists protest outside of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters in Washington on July 17. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
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COVID-19 HAS exploded at migrant detention centers nationwide, infecting detainees and employees alike and seeding the disease aboard deportation flights to countries ill-equipped to respond, especially in Latin America. The facilities, run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, are petri dishes of contagion, and the residents — many of whom have no serious criminal record — are sitting ducks in the crosshairs of an inhumane policy.

A federal judge has ordered the release of migrant children at two ICE family detention centers in Texas and one in Pennsylvania, having found them at risk to the virus and to spotty enforcement of safety measures. But across the country, scores more facilities have been hit hard by the pandemic, and ICE has been unable to contain it.

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Roughly 1,000 new covid-19 cases have been diagnosed in ICE facilities since early July, bringing the number who have tested positive for the disease since March to roughly 4,000. That’s roughly a fifth of all those who have been tested, though some were infected before ICE took them into custody.

Courts have ordered more than 500 at-risk detainees released, and ICE has released an additional 900 at its own initiative. Those reductions, along with ongoing deportations, have cut the detainee population by 40 percent since March, to roughly 22,000 now. That’s good, but it is clear that the agency’s steps to mitigate the outbreak have been inadequate. It is also clear that testing at the facilities has lagged, proper distancing at some is insufficient, and health care is not equal to the task of containment. At the Farmville Detention Center in Virginia, west of Richmond, nearly two-thirds of 400 detainees have tested positive for the virus in recent weeks.

Moreover, ICE has been complicit in accelerating the pandemic’s reach into Central America, the Caribbean and elsewhere, by deporting tens of thousands of migrants since the spring, including some who were infected. At least a dozen countries assert that deportees arrived with the virus.

Many were not tested before boarding the flights. On one deportation flight to India in May, 22 passengers — about 15 percent of those onboard — tested positive upon arriving in India. In Guatemala, authorities say more than 160 deportees who have arrived since April tested positive for the virus. “We understand the United States wants to deport people,” said Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei in May. “What we don’t understand is why they send us all these contaminated flights.”

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Advocates and public health officials have urged ICE to accelerate the release of at-risk detainees, who can be fitted with ankle monitors to encourage their appearance at immigration court proceedings. ICE has done some of that; it is critical that it do more.

To continue detaining nonviolent detainees as the virus tightens its grip on ICE facilities is pointless and dangerous — for detainees and for employees, scores of whom have been infected with covid-19. It’s past time for ICE to intensify the fight against covid-19, and reassess a policy that has failed to contain a pandemic behind bars.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Trump must comply at once with the order to release all detained migrant children

The Post’s View: Migrant children are still confined and vulnerable. It’s a gratuitous act of cruelty.

The Post’s View: We’re deporting people to vulnerable countries — and sending the virus with them

J. Larry Brown: Immigrants are in the same boat with the rest of us in this pandemic. The administration doesn’t care.