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How a Federal Agency Became a Covid Superspreader

Shut down borders, limit nonessential travel, and reduce density in shared spaces. Provide personal protective equipment, get tested, and quarantine if symptomatic. 

These are the guidelines that have been emphasized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) since the beginning of the pandemic. For most, they are common-sense actions to curb the spread of a virus that has claimed the lives of over 230,000 Americans. Yet, these regulations have been flouted by another agency within the same government: Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, commonly known as ICE. The federal agency has become a superspreader of the virus over the course of the pandemic, exhibiting an indifference towards public health measures and reflecting a broader culture of neglect and dehumanization of migrants. 

Even before the pandemic, the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General warned of dangerous overcrowding in ICE facilities, attributable to both a surge in asylum seekers at the border and prolonged detention policies. Moreover, top congressional Democrats have recently called for a federal investigation in response to a whistleblower allegation that detained women received unsafe and unconsented hysterectomies in the Irwin County Detention Center run by private contractor LaSalle Corrections.

Since February 2020, over 7,000 positive cases have been reported across ICE’s detention facilities. Currently, around 700 active cases are being monitored. Twenty-one detainees died in ICE custody in the 2020 fiscal year, eight of whom had tested positive for Covid. This number, which does not include those who died from the virus after being released from custody, is the highest the immigration agency has reported since 2005. 

Recently, the Adelanto detention center in San Bernardino County, CA, one of the largest ICE facilities in the country, saw a massive spike in cases. At present, around 20 percent of its detainees have Covid. While ICE reports that detention facilities comply with CDC guidelines, the concentrated capacity makes the necessary six feet of social distancing physically impossible. At Adelanto, which incarcerates about 1,300 people at a time, bunk beds are spaced at two to three feet apart, four to eight detainees are sometimes held together in cells under 100 square feet, and sinks, toilets, and showers are shared with infrequent disinfecting. In Gayle v. Meade, Judge Marcia G. Cooke of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida concluded that ICE’s disregard for CDC protocols equated to “cruel and unusual punishment because they are exemplary of deliberate indifference” and violated detainees’ Fifth and Eight Amendment rights. In similar censures, judges have ordered facilities to half intake of detainees, administer weekly tests, ensure social distancing, and provide personal protective equipment to detainees. 

The evident health risk to detainees and ICE employees has been further exacerbated by the agency’s ongoing transfer of detainees between different facilities. Most detainees report only being administered a temperature check before boarding planes, despite recent guidance from the CDC and medical associations raising questions of the efficacy of temperature checks. Moreover, ICE has admitted to testing only a sample of their detained population. Dr. Sirous Asgari, a detained Iranian professor with a history of lung infections and pneumonia, was flown by ICE nine times to four different detention centers across the country between March 17 and 27, even after the CDC recommended Americans avoid nonessential travel. Asgari was being held by ICE despite having been acquitted of charges of divulging trade secrets and offering to return to Iran voluntarily. At the end of April, he tested positive for the virus in the Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana.

ICE’s movement of detainees amidst the pandemic has not stopped at national borders. A breaking New York Times report published in partnership with The Marshall Project in July found that ICE deported Covid-infected migrants back to at least 11 different countries. Central American countries—particularly Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, from which the vast majority of undocumented migrants come—have been most affected by ICE’s misconduct. By mid-March, these countries had already shut down their own borders to international travel. Now, they were being coerced into accepting planes full of infected deportees from what had quickly become the world’s Covid epicenter: the United States. By the end of April, roughly a fifth of the nearly seven hundred confirmed cases of Covid in Guatemala were deportees from the US. 

Many of the countries ICE has deported migrants to already lack adequate health infrastructure and cannot bear the burden of increased cases, especially as deportees disperse into local communities and spread the virus. The island nation of Haiti has a mere 120 ICU beds for a population of 11 million people. Guatemala has only two large urban hospitals. In late March, Guatemalan officials asked the US to temporarily delay deportation flights after a 29-year-old tested positive for the virus upon arrival. In response, the Trump administration threatened to impose visa sanctions on non-compliant countries. 

With earlier threats to cut humanitarian aid for countries refusing to stop migrant caravans, the Northern Triangle countries—Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras—have been forced to embrace a posture of deference to the United States. Accordingly, the US has leveraged humanitarian aid as a bargaining chip for advancing geopolitical interests. In April, the President announced via Twitter that the US would be sending ventilators and testing equipment to Honduras and El Salvador, citing the cooperation of their governments on the southern border crisis. Notably, Guatemala, which had repeatedly resisted deportation flights, was not on that list. 

ICE’s negligence in the spread of Covid not only in detention centers, but also across state and national borders, illustrates an agency-wide disregard for humanitarian migrant protections. Detained migrants, who are amongst the most vulnerable segments of society, deserve—at a minimum—the right to health. ICE’s reckless deportation of infected patients is also a tremendous disservice to countries far less equipped to deal with the public health crisis. Covid-19 has been a test for ICE to demonstrate its commitment to not only the dignity and health of migrants in custody but also the well-being of other nations.

It is a test the agency has sorely failed.

Photo: Image via Flicker (Fibonacci Blue)