The rapidly spreading omicron variant is testing the ability of U.S. authorities to keep tens of thousands of migrants healthy at crowded detention centers, where COVID-19 prevention measures were virtually nonexistent at the beginning of the pandemic but have since improved.
More than 2,540 people tested positive for COVID-19 Friday in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s 198 immigration detention centers nationwide, according to ICE data, an increase of more than 792% from 285 cases reported on January 3.
The surge comes amid a nationwide increase in infections because of the more transmissible omicron variant of the coronavirus.
Even so, ICE officials say they have come a long way since 2020 with COVID-19 protection for migrants in their custody.
“In terms of improvement, the agency is more communicative than they were before. But honestly, we are still seeing apprehensions and detentions in the same way that we saw at the beginning of the pandemic. … There's more procedures put in place [such as] request releases, which wasn't the case before,” said Elena Noureddine, who heads the detention program at PAIR, a Boston-based nonprofit that provides free legal representation for asylum-seekers and detained immigrants.
2020 to 2022
In March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, ICE would not say whether detainees were being tested for COVID-19. There were few if any opportunities for social distancing, no masks were given to detainees, and vaccines were yet to be available.
At that time, an ICE spokesperson said there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 among those held in its network of detention centers, for-profit prisons and county jails. Confirmation of COVID-19 infections was challenging, with testing in its infancy.
In January 2022, an ICE official told VOA that the agency is now testing all migrants for COVID-19 during the intake screening process. After testing, they are housed separately from the general population for 14 days and monitored for symptoms. Those with symptoms are isolated and given the “appropriate medical care to manage the disease,” ICE said, in accordance with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.
“New arrivals who have negative test results and remain symptom-free can join the general detained population after the 14-day intake period,” ICE told VOA via email.
Staff and detainees are required to wear masks even after vaccinations, per ICE pandemic response rules.
As for vaccines, 48,246 detainees had each received at least one dose of vaccine as of January 5, according to the agency’s spokesperson, and 671 had received boosters. ICE has offered vaccines to migrants since July, when 27,670 migrants were in detention, and boosters since November, when 21,462 were in detention.
Since the pandemic began, the American Civil Liberties Union has been working to make sure detained immigrants are protected from COVID-19, according to Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project.
“We filed lawsuits arguing for the release of people — especially those who are medically vulnerable to COVID-19 — to be released from detention so that they could actually be in their homes and have safe social distancing,” she added.
The University of California-Davis estimated in March 2021 that 42.5% of ICE-detained immigrants had at least one chronic medical condition and that 95.6% had access to a stable home.
Cho told VOA that thousands of people who were medically vulnerable to COVID-19 were released from detention to family members in the U.S. as a result of ACLU litigation. VOA requested more specific numbers on medically vulnerable migrant releases but hasn’t heard back.
As of late December, an estimated 5,200 medically vulnerable immigrants remained in detention, according to reporting by CBS News. ICE told VOA it “continues to evaluate its detained population … to determine whether continued detention is appropriate.”
Cho of the National Prison Project said that the government has acted during the pandemic to protect detainees from COVID-19 infections, but that work remains.
“People report having difficulty getting masks, getting tested for COVID-19. They report difficulty with getting vaccines. … They are describing conditions where people, especially those medically vulnerable, don't feel safe. They're describing conditions where in some detention facilities they get one disposable mask a week to wear the entire week,” Cho said.
In most cases, an ICE official told VOA, each migrant receives a vaccine in custody. But the average stay in ICE custody was 37 days during fiscal 2021, meaning most migrants were no longer in custody to receive their second shots.
The ICE spokesperson told VOA that the agency encourages migrants to be vaccinated and boosted. But in July, Axios reported that three in 10 detainees declined the COVID-19 vaccine when asked to sign consent forms.
Noureddine of Boston-based PAIR said part of the explanation of the skepticism among detainees is a fear that the government is asking them to sign documents as a way to get them deported.
“I’ve had clients call me saying, ‘I was presented with a document. I think it was about the vaccine. I'm not sure.’ [Then] I check with ICE and they told me it was to get the vaccine, but there was a lot of confusion,” she added.