Perhaps its really not so shocking that a high number of tests have come back positive when advocates, experts, and courts have all warned, for some time now, of the dangers posed by facilities that already have a long history of abuse and mistreatment, even before this pandemic. And right now, it’s those low testing numbers—and high positive numbers—that are incredibly worrying since ICE reported its first in-custody positive nearly a month ago, Misra reports.
“Testing barely 1% of people in the weeks since then demonstrates a shocking level of negligence on the part of ICE, and a near-total disregard for the health and safety of the people it is detaining,” Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, immigration policy expert at the American Immigration Council, told her. “If almost a third of people tested have been infected with COVID-19, that suggests that the real numbers are likely far higher.”
There is a crisis in federal immigration custody right now because facilities that hold children and adults have each seen outbreaks similar to those in nursing homes. Last week, ProPublica’s Melissa Sanchez reported that at least 37 migrant children in custody in Illinois have tested positive for COVID-19 “in what appears to be the largest outbreak of the virus in the country in shelters for unaccompanied minors.” Among adults, Mother Jones reports that a for-profit detention facility in Louisiana has reported 20 cases, “more than any other ICE detention center in the nation.”
The 20 cases at LaSalle Corrections’ Richwood Correctional Center eclipses the count of at least 18 positive cases at California’s Otay Mesa Detention Center—and there are likely more in each place. In Louisiana, a number of detainees told Mother Jones that “many of the roughly 70 people who remain in their unit are sick with COVID-like symptoms. Overall, the jail was holding about 200 people earlier this month.” One man, Manuel, told Mother Jones that “nearly half the people in the dorm have come down with something.”
According to the numbers ICE has been willing to release, detention facilities in 14 states have so far reported confirmed cases among adult detainees. Thirty ICE employees who work at detention facilities have tested positive, while 91 employees not assigned to facilities have also tested positive. By refusing to release large number of detainees as county jails and sheriffs have done all across the country, ICE is only fanning the epidemic, endangering the lives of both detainees and workers.
“Detention centers are like a ticking time bomb—they are severely at risk for a COVID-19 outbreak, considering the close quarters in which detainees are housed and a population with much higher rates of underlying health issues,” New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said last week when introducing legislation with Washington state Rep. Pramila Jayapal in order to force ICE to lower its detainee population. “This is really a matter of life and death: it’s time that we act quickly and decisively to save as many lives as possible, and that means ending the unnecessary detention of immigrants during this public health crisis.”