The US immigration system has been branded a COVID-19 super-spreader by a Scientific American report. According to the report, the continued detainment of immigrants in US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers has led to some of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the country.
It’s claimed that the US immigration system is endangering the lives of immigrants, detention center staff and local communities. Across the US, immigrant advocates had urged the Trump administration to release immigrant detainees to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Since March 2020, ICE facilities have experienced some of the worst outbreaks of the virus. As of February 2021, nearly 10,000 (9,569) ICE detainees and staff had tested positive for COVID-19, representing a total that was 17% higher than the general US population.
Since ICE began testing detainees, at least one detainee a month has died of the virus. However, analysts have said that the amount of suffering that has occurred needn’t have happened. The Scientific American report said: “These statistics were not an inevitability.”
ICE has been accused of enacting policies that have been ‘inconsistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines’, by making arrests against public health recommendations.
Meanwhile, ICE subcontractors have been accused of treating immigrant detainees with cruelty and callous disregard, while ignoring the recommendations of local health departments and their offer of help.
The Scientific American report sided with immigrant advocates by saying that ICE’s first move when the pandemic hit the US should have been to release detainees – especially people with underlying medical issues.
However, as of late February, ICE had released just 3,500 detainees who were potentially vulnerable to the virus, yet tens of thousands remain in custody. This is despite an ICE ‘promise’ to delay immigration enforcement actions amid the pandemic unless they were deemed ‘mission critical’.
Raids among immigrant communities continued throughout the spring and summer and since September 2020, ICE has all but resumed normal operations across the US, including in sanctuary cities.
ICE has been criticized for its seemingly ‘blatant disregard for public health’, with commentators saying that the US immigration agency is endangering the lives of its staff and detainees. The Scientific American report states: “What actions authorities have taken have been perilous, punitive, and inhumane.”
“They’ve withheld protective equipment; transferred detainees needlessly between facilities; ignored detainees’ medical needs; and physically and mentally abused detainees with fists, pepper spray, and solitary confinement for seeking medical care,” the report added.
While staff were provided with protective equipment after an ICE officer contracted COVID in March 2020, detainees had to wait weeks for masks. Meanwhile, those that ripped off sleeves of detainment center issued T-shirts to create makeshift masks, were placed in solitary confinement for ‘vandalism’.
As of April, detainees were forced to sign waivers in order to receive masks, saying that they would not hold ICE liable if they got sick.
However, by May, the spread of coronavirus in immigration detention centers was rife. One witness, Leticia Sierra, told Scientific American: “They treated us like less than animals. Every night, I worried that I wouldn’t wake up.”
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