A new report published by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has accused US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of ‘routinely ignoring its own COVID-19 safety rules’, resulting in significantly high infection rates across US immigration detention centers. The report states that social distancing measures are ‘impossible’ in many detention centers.
Meanwhile, the report highlighted unclean conditions, lack of hand soap and sanitizers and testing being unavailable – even for those showing COVID symptoms – as further contributing factors toward the spread of coronavirus in ICE operated detention centers.
According to the report, in some detention centers, even masks were considered a ‘rare luxury’ by inmates, while US immigration agents were issued with face coverings, but apparently refused to wear them.
Fifty former detainees interviewed
The PHR’s findings are based on the testimony of fifty former detainees held in US immigration detention centers who responded to a standardized questionnaire. Between them, the 50 respondents had been held in 22 different centers across the US, 13 of which are private facilities.
The majority of respondents said that US immigration staff had ‘downplayed’ the severity of the coronavirus pandemic and in some cases didn’t even mention it to those detained.
According to ICE’s pandemic response guidelines, staff are required to inform detainees of safety procedures and highlight the risks of failing to follow them. However, the PHR report states that 42 of 50 detainees only found out about the pandemic through TV news broadcasts, while only two were told by ICE staff.
Furthermore, despite ICE’s own guidelines recommending distances of 6ft (1.8 meters) between detainees, social distancing was impossible in detention facilities. According to the PHR report, beds averaged just 2.87ft apart, while the average number of detainees sleeping in one room was 36.
One respondent said: “On the bunk beds, you could feel the other person’s breath on you.”
“After they started getting lawsuits, they [US immigration officers] told us to start sleeping head to foot,” said another respondent.
Transferred between centers
Despite the pandemic, detainees have routinely been transferred between US immigration detention centers without being tested for COVID, and added to the general population without any period in quarantine.
The PHR report claims that transferring detainees was one of several punitive measures used against those who complained about the health risks of coronavirus. Some detainees displaying symptoms, who needed to isolate, were placed in solitary confinement.
The PHR report said: “The predictable result of ICE’s approach was an infection rate that between April and August 2020 ranged from 6 to 22 times the US average. Even this figure underestimated the true level, as testing was sparse.
“Positivity rates were 47% in April and 18% in August 2020. As 2021 dawned, ICE was holding 16,037 detainees and had reported 8,545 infections,” the report added.
ICE supports Trump
ICE has widely been viewed as a ‘hotbed’ of Trump support and sparked criticism recently when it erected inflammatory billboards during the presidential election showing US immigration violators in the swing state of Pennsylvania.
Campaigners and public health experts have urged ICE to release immigrant detainees amid the pandemic, in line with much of Europe, however the agency has repeatedly ignored requests and continues to arrest and detain people.
ICE has also been accused of spreading the virus on a global scale because of its continuing deportation of people without prior testing. An investigation launched by The New York Times and the Marshall Project in July 2020 revealed that 12 governments had reported that ICE had sent sick people to their countries.
In recent months ICE has been hit by a spate of resignations, with Tony Pham, appointed ICE acting director in August 2020, stepping down in December of the same year. Meanwhile his replacement, Jonathan Fahey, resigned after just two weeks in the job. Under the Trump administration, ICE has had six different acting directors.
Amid the continued rapid spread of coronavirus in US immigration detention facilities, many detainees are now staging hunger strikes in protest against the lack of protection against the pandemic.
One case, involving a French teacher who had taught in a Louisiana elementary school for 19 years, resulted in three weeks of detainment. Following release, the teacher immediately tested positive for coronavirus.
50-year-old, Djibril Coulibaly, had been in the US legally on a H1B visa, but a clerical error by his employers resulted in him being arrested and detained by ICE while leaving the school in which he’d worked for almost 20 years. He was warned that he faced deportation back to his native Mali.
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