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Immigration Detention and Covid-19

Immigration enforcement strategies must change to help alleviate the worst damage of Covid-19.

Last Updated: September 27, 2021
Published: March 27, 2020

Covid-19 poses a grave threat to those in immigration custody, including those being held along the southern border and at other immigration facilities around the country. The conditions at some of these facilities are deplorable, and it would be unconscionable to place additional people into these facilities absent an extraordinary reason. The federal government, in partnership with state and community actors, must create a comprehensive response to minimize the impacts of Covid-19 on those who are at risk of arrest by immigration authorities. The federal government should also dramatically reduce the number of people in immigration detention.

On May 6, Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, a 57-year-old man from El Salvador, died in ICE custody in Southern California. He was the first person die in ICE custody after testing positive for Covid-19. For an updated list of those who have died in ICE custody due to Covid-19, see The American Immigration Lawyers Association's "Deaths at Adult Detention Centers" website. A year after Mejia's death, the Washington Post reported nearly 1,500 active Covid-19 cases in ICE detention centers compared with just 60 cases in the much-larger Federal Bureau of Prisons. 

Immigration Enforcement

Brennan Center Recommendation: ICE and CBP should suspend all immigration-related arrests unless the person to be arrested presents a serious risk to public safety independent of their immigration status. The Department of Justice should not initiate any new prosecutions for immigration offenses absent a threat to public safety.

  • On March 18, ICE announced that it would temporarily scale down arrests, except for those that “pose a threat to public safety.” Specifically, ICE’s Covid-19 guidelines state that: “ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) will focus enforcement on public safety risks and individuals subject to mandatory detention based on criminal grounds. For those individuals who do not fall into those categories, ERO will exercise discretion to delay enforcement actions until after the crisis or utilize alternatives to detention, as appropriate.”
  • One day after the head of ICE announced the policy change, Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Ken Cuccinelli tweeted that, because “the health and safety of Americans is paramount,” the agency would continue to “conduct enforcement operations.”
  • Since the March 18 announcement, ICE has continued to make arrests around the country, including the recent arrest of a teenager from a New York City shelter. 
  • As of the third week of June, the CDC indefinitely extended a March order that bars migrants seeking protection at land borders, including children. Despite US anti-trafficking law that requires Border Patrol to transfer children to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, children are still being turned away.
  • Despite the Chuckwalla Valley State Prison having a massive coronavirus outbreak, ICE arrested three inmates upon their release from the prison in early June, and transferred them to the Adelanto detention center.
  • The Trump administration has used Title 42 of the US Code (a measure related to public health) to strip asylum-seekers of legal protections, forcibly returning them to communities that many believe are dangerous. Over 2,000 children have been returned to large, potentially unsafe cities as unaccompanied minors under this process in the past few months.
  • Six North Carolina jails have entered into new contracts with ICE during the pandemic, and many immigration rights organizers have reported that ICE subsequently increased immigration enforcement in May and June. This agreement has also facilitated transfers between jails/prisons and detention centers, of which ICE is not required to report details, as they are below the regional level. Immigration advocates fear that these agreements are furthering the virus’s spread.
  • Due to their knowledge of ICE presence at courthouses, some undocumented people in Texas are “self-evicting” in response to landlords threatening eviction. Despite the fact that undocumented tenants have the same rights as anyone else during the eviction process, advocates say that many such tenants fear ICE detention and deportation if they try to exercise their rights.
  • On July 21, Mayor Bill De Blasio of New York City announced the Landlord-Tenant Mediation Project, an alternative to eviction proceedings that bypasses the court system entirely. This provision, while broadly applicable, will allow undocumented people who fear being detained by ICE at courthouses to safely defend their rights as tenants during the pandemic.
  • Because of mass furloughs at US Citizenship and Immigration Services, many lawful immigrants who applied to become citizens months ago may not be able to vote. The COVID-related furloughs have caused massive delays at USCIS that will likely not be resolved before the election, given that the agency already had 700,000 pending naturalization applications at the beginning of the pandemic.
  • In November, lawyers from Columbia Law School sued in federal court to prevent the deportation of people who survived or witnessed coercive gynecological procedures at an ICE detention center in Georgia.
  • On November 18, a federal judge in Washington, D.C. blocked the Trump administration from deporting any more unaccompanied migrant children who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • A number of people were released from prison facilities during the Covid-19 pandemic, only to be transferred directly into ICE custody. Four of those people sued the state of California in December, seeking over $25,000 in damages for each person due to the "harms and higher health risks from Covid-19" they faced while held in immigration detention centers.
  • On February 1, DHS announced that ICE will not conduct enforcement operations "at or near" vaccination sites or healthcare facilities, in order to encourage people to get vaccinated regardless of their immigration status.
  • As of April 8, undocumented immigrants in Florida were being turned away when trying to receive the Covid vaccine because the state requires people to present a valid Florida driver’s license or U.S. government-issued photo identification, a utility bill with a Florida address and the individual’s name, or a rental agreement. Many undocumented immigrants do not have these forms of identification, and many work in high risk settings as essential workers.
  • On April 8, a coalition of immigration advocates sued the Biden administration for expanding on a Trump-era policy barring entry from various countries in light of the pandemic. The State Department has stopped issuing visas in response to the policy, and advocates assert that while the president has a right to suspend entry into the U.S., this does not require the State Department to stop issuing visas.
  • On June 30, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas missed his second self-imposed deadline for drafting new deportation rules and policy recommendations for whom ICE should target. Mayorkas said he wouldn’t have the new rules written until August or September but even that deadline might slip.
  • In July, the Biden Administration announced it will review thousands of deportations from the Trump Administration, permitting some immigrants back into the US.
  • On June 24, Documented NY reported that a chaotic reopening of immigration courts is making New York immigrants fear deportation. Jodi Ziesemer, the director of the Immigration Protection Unit at the New York Legal Assistance Group, estimates that of the 150,000 pending cases in New York immigration courts, two-thirds were affected by the pandemic shutdown. 
  • On Thursday, July 15, Ed Gonzalez, a Texas sheriff and Biden’s nominee to lead ICE, testified before the Senate Homeland Security Committee. If confirmed, he would be the first senate-confirmed director of ICE in more than four years.
  • As of July 16, the US Customs and Border Protection agents have made more than a million arrests at the US-Mexico border this year, which is higher than any full-year total since at least 2005.
  • About 100,000 employment-based green cards are at risk of expiring due to the application backlogs from the pandemic.
  • On July 28, Texas Governor Gregg Abbott issued an executive order, allowing Texas Department of Public Safety troopers to stop any car suspected of carrying undocumented immigrants. Abbott said the order is due to the surge in Covid cases, which he blames on the increase in undocumented immigrants entering the state. On July 29, the DOJ sued Abbott to block the order, and six days later the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit against Abbott, arguing the order is racial profiling. On July 30, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order stopping the executive order.
  • Los Angeles has created a permanent program with $4 million in public funding for migrants facing deportation. The LA Justice Fund began as a pilot program in 2017 and provides attorneys to low-income migrants facing deportation.
  • On July 30th, the Senate confirmed Ur Jaddou as the next director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, which hasn’t had a Senate-confirmed leader in over two years. She will become the first woman and the first of Arab and Mexican descent to hold the position.
  • The Associated Press reported that the number of children at the Mexico border reached an all-time high with US authorities picking up more than 19,000 unaccompanied minors in July.
  • In early August, the Biden administration announced that it will be hiring an additional 1,000 asylum officers and another 1,000 support staff to help speed case processing at the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • On Tuesday, August 17, DHS announced that it will begin implementing a new case management program, relying on support help from nonprofits to track and offer more assistance to migrants through the Alternatives to Detention program. This new case management pilot program will "provide counseling and support services to the migrants in conjunction with partnering nonprofits and local governments that will be eligible for reimbursement funds."
  • On August 19th, A federal judge in Texas blocked guidelines that limit who ICE should arrest or deport. The guidelines were put in place by the Biden Administration early this year. 

Immigration Detention

Brennan Center Recommendation: ICE and CBP should release all individuals who are not a “credible threat” to public safety on parole/bond, including all people without a criminal record or with only a minor violation as their most serious criminal conviction. This would encompass most of the detained population.

  • Following a lawsuit by ACLU Massachusetts, ICE released two immigrant detainees from an immigration detention facility in Massachusetts. Both detainees had serious preexisting medical conditions that put them at a higher risk of illness or death were they to contract Covid-19. 
  • On March 28, Judge Dolly M. Gee ordered the federal government to "make continuous efforts" to release migrant children from federal detention facilities. Although she did not order an immediate release, she did order that ICE and the Office of Refugee Resettlement must provide an account of their efforts to release those in custody by April 6. 
  • ALDEA-The People’s Justice Center in Reading, the Rapid Defense Network in New York, and the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, in San Antonio, Texas, recently filed a suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia demanding that the government release all families currently detained at ICE’s Family Residential Centers across the country. On March 30th, Judge James Boasberg denied the aforementioned request for release. However, he did demand that the government produce a report in one week detailing whether the facilities are in compliance with CDC guidelines for "congregate" facilities. He also said that the government must turn over videos documenting the over-crowding at the facilities in question. 
  • The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Washington, and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) recently sued ICE on behalf of immigrants held in the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington. The lawsuit seeks the release of individuals who are in civil detention and are at a high risk of serious illness or death were a Covid-19 infection to occur in the detention center.
  • On April 4, ICE directed field offices nationwide to reassess custody of anyone over 60, as well as those of any age with chronic illnesses compromising their immune systems. 
  • On April 9, U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg ordered ICE to disclose the number of releases they have granted or denied from detention centers in five southern states to migrants considered at higher risk of dying from Covid-19. 
  • On April 10, the Marshall Project reported that deportation hearings for unaccompanied migrant children are proceeding across the country, including in Covid-19 hotspots such as New York City and Los Angeles. The Executive Office for Immigration Review, the DOJ agency in charge of the immigration courts, has rejected calls from judges, prosecutors and immigration lawyers to shut down immigration courts nationwide.
  • On April 14, immigration attorneys in Aurora, Colorado sued for the release of 14 medically vulnerable detainees. After the lawsuit was filed, ICE released eight women out of the plaintiff group, all of whom are HIV positive. 
  • As of April 16, ICE had released nearly 700 detainees from custody. According to advocates in New Jersey, where there have been severe Covid-19 outbreaks in immigration detention facilities, ICE has released at least 245 detainees from immigration detention. 
  • On April 23, a federal judge in Los Angeles ordered ICE to reduce the number of detainees at a facility in Adelanto, California, so that detainees can practice safe social distancing amid the Covid-19 pandemic. In order to reduce the population at the facility, the judge said that ICE would be expected to release at least 100 detainees by April 27, and at least 150 more detainees by April 30. 
  • In April, U.S. District Judge Marcia G. Cooke ordered ICE to shrink its detainee populations to 75 percent of capacity to allow for social distancing at three immigration detention facilities in South Florida. On May 10, ICE told Cooke in a court filing that, as of May 7, they had reduced the facilities to 71 percent capacity, 74 percent capacity, and 65 percent capacity, respectively.
  • The former acting director of ICE called on the agency to release all nonviolent, low flight risk detainees.
  • Two doctors, who are contracted experts for the Department of Homeland Security's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, wrote a letter to Congress asking the department to consider releasing all detainees who do not pose a risk to public safety. The doctors are co-directors and co-founders of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights.
  • More than 3,000 physicians signed on to a letter to ICE urging the agency to release all detainees while their legal cases proceed, particularly those in high-risk categories (the elderly and immuno-compromised). The letter was written by physician members of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest Medical Providers Network and Doctors for Camp Closure.
  • On April 7, Amnesty International released a report and statement calling for the United States to release all immigration detainees from detention, "except in the most extraordinary of circumstances requiring ongoing detention.”
  • More than 60 women detained at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington have gone on a hunger strike. They are demanding the immediate release of vulnerable people, humanitarian visas to detainees, and a moratorium on deportations and transfers. 
  • On April 29, ICE released 6 migrant women from an El Paso immigration detention facility. The release came five days after the women filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus on April 24, seeking their release from ICE detention because of underlying health conditions that put them at risk of complications from Covid-19. 
  • Migrants detained at the La Palma ICE facility in Arizona (operated by CoreCivic) say that they were forced to clean the facility without adequate PPE. On August 29, ICE confirmed 233 new cases at the La Palma center, bringing its total to 356 cases.
  • At the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, Covid-19 cases increased by 460% from June 11 to June 15. ICE spokesperson Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe has said that the surge is due to increased testing, and that Eloy has restricted intake in response.
  • At the Port Isabel Detention Center in South Texas, positive Covid-19 cases have increased from four cases on June 5 to 54 cases on June 22. ICE officials are reported to have refused testing to 32 people who requested it because they felt sick.
  • Immigration lawyers and advocates have received hundreds of requests from people in ICE detention, who are seeking deportation to avoid the risks of being held in crowded detention facilities during the pandemic. Due to the scarcity of masks and other essential hygiene products in ICE facilities, seeking deportation seems safer to many, even though it generally means forfeiting one’s immigration case.
  • As of June 2020, concerns have been raised that ICE is significantly underreporting their COVID cases. The Vera Institute has designed its own epidemiological model based on ICE’s transfers and detention facilities, and estimates that the number of COVID-19 cases in their custody could be 15 times higher than ICE reports. Still, ICE maintains that they are following hygienic procedure, and continues to book thousands of people into custody.
  • At the end of June, US District Judge Dolly Gee ordered that children who had been housed at family residential centers (about 1% of the total population detained by ICE) for more than 20 days be released by no later than July 17. Gee specified that the releases were essential for the health of those in facilities. Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf responded that ICE would not allow a “jailbreak,” asserting that the people in ICE facilities have no right to be in the country.
  • At the Farmville ICE Detention Center in Virginia, nearly 75% of detainees have contracted COVID-19, heightening alarm among immigration advocates who have been publicizing the center’s poor conditions. In June, there were 49 cases at the detention center. At that time, the center also received a transfer of 74 detainees from Arizona and Florida facilities. Now, as of July 22, 268 out of 360 detainees at Farmville are confirmed as positive.
  • Based on mid-July data from ICE and the Texas Department of State Health Services, people in Texas detention centers are 15 times more likely to have an outbreak of COVID-19 than the rest of the state’s population. Nearly 30 detainees across the state report that ICE officials are still failing to provide adequate social distancing and medical care.
  • Immigrants at the Stewart detention center run by Core-Civic in Georgia reported on July 23 that they are consistently denied COVID-related medical help, and violently punished to the point of injury for requesting it. This follows reports that Core-Civic officers pepper-sprayed detainees at the Stewart detention center in April.
  • At Sherburne County Jail in Minnesota, ICE detainees have reported that authorities habitually deny people for COVID tests (even when symptoms like chest pains and coughs are present), and threaten indefinite isolation and punishment if detainees are sick. This comes a month after Minnesota governor Tim Walz announced that Minnesota had reached its goal of making 20,000 tests available each day.
  • The US government has yet to release immigrant children detained with their parents, despite the deadline for their release this week set by a federal judge. Instead, this July, more parents and children were held in the three centers covered by the order than were held the month before.
  • Attorneys are calling for the immediate release of dozens of ICE detainees, after the Bergen County jail’s air conditioning failed over the weekend of July 25 and 26. Temperatures reached the 90s, and attorneys wrote that their clients were enduring “oppressive and dangerous conditions” that added even more danger to the ongoing pandemic.
  • On August 29, a 50-year-old Honduran man who had contracted Covid-19 while in ICE custody died at a Texas hospital. He had been detained at the Joe Corley Processing Center in Conroe, Texas, where, according to agency statistics, 50 people have tested positive for the disease since the beginning of the pandemic.
  • On October 7, ICE reported that at least 400 detainees at La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona have tested positive for Covid-19 - the most for any federal immigration facility in the nation, followed by Atlanta Field Office Stewart Detention Center with 360 positive cases.
  • Within two weeks at the end of September, 16 people held at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center had been hospitalized due to Covid-19. On October 8, the facility reported 147 active Covid-19 cases among people detained there, making its outbreak the largest of all ICE facilities.
  • On October 14, a letter led by Rep. Linda Sánchez, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus task force on immigration, requested that the Department of Homeland Security provide Congress with a written plan to handle the convergence of flu season and the Covid-19 pandemic within immigration detention facilities. The letter also called for common flu vaccines to be given to all those detained in ICE custody.
  • On October 22, the LA Times reported that at least 19 women at the Irwin County Detention Center have accused Dr. Mahendra Amin, the Center's the primary gynecologist, of forcing them to undergo unwarranted gynecological surgeries which often left them unable to have children.
  • On October 26, the ACLU returned to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in support of medically vulnerable immigrants detained in the Calhoun County Jail. Relying on testimony from detainees, the ACLU argued that the jail has not been enforcing Covid-19 precautions and is incapable of keeping safe the people held there.
  • On November 6, the Otay Mesa Detention Center announced that it is experiencing a second wave of Covid-19 infections, following a deadly outbreak in the spring that infected more than 200 people detained there and killed at least one person. The facility reported at least 40 active cases, though those behind bars expressed concern of greater spread.
  • On November 4, researchers reported in JAMA that Covid-19 has spread through ICE detention centers at more than 13 times the national rate, on average.
  • Immigrants from Cameroon, who were detained at the Adams County Correctional Center in Mississippi, have filed a lawsuit that alleges officers "physically assaulted them, blasted them with pepper spray and pressed their bodies and necks on the ground to the point where they could no longer breathe." Represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the complaint explains that the abuse was enacted in an effort to force the immigrants to sign deportation papers.
  • At the end of November, ICE officials began pushing in court to increase the number of immigrants detained in California. In court documents, the agency's lawyers argued that ICE should be given "flexibility" to detain more people instead of being subject to a court order that “locks in how they might use their housing units.”
  • In an investigation published on December 3, journalists revealed that immigrants detained at the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama were punished for requesting Covid-19 testing. In a recorded conversation, "one employee described the events of July 6 as an attempt to 'bully' people into not getting tested." Later in the recording, both employees revealed that "immigrants inside Etowah appeared too scared to seek even basic medical care."
  • On December 9, federal immigration officials argued that they should be released from a nationwide court order that compels them to provide special care to disabled people in ICE detention. This assertion, raised in response to a class action lawsuit filed this summer that argued disabled detainees are being discriminated against due to a lack of adequate mental and physical health care, comes during numerous outbreaks of Covid-19 at multiple ICE facilities.
  • On December 11, the Detention Watch Network released a report documenting that the "lack of a quick and efficient response" to Covid-19 in immigration detention facilities caused nearly a quarter of a million infections nationwide between May 1 and August 1.
  • On the same day, advocates filed a court order seeking the release of people held at the immigration detention facility in Tacoma, Washington. The order also seeks other virus spread-mitigation measures to be implemented at the facility, as part of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
  • On December 12, ICE announced the first positive Covid-19 tests among people detained for immigration-related reasons in Wisconsin. They join the 7,888 other people with positive cases reported by ICE nationwide since the pandemic began, though the true number of infections is likely much larger.
  • Amid rising Covid-19 cases in Arizona, the Eloy Immigration Court, inside a detention facility where over 300 people have tested positive for Covid-19, began reinstating in-person hearings in December. Immigration lawyers and advocates for detained people have raised concerns about the decision's potential to increase Covid-19 exposure, but the court has ignored their concerns.
  • The family of Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, the first person to die in ICE custody due to Covid-19, filed a lawsuit on December 22 alleging that negligence and deliberate indifference led to his wrongful death. At least eight people have died in ICE custody since the pandemic began.
  • On December 21, lawyers for a group of women detained at the Irwin County Detention Center filed a class action petition and complaint, alleging rampant non-consensual medical interventions and retaliation for speaking out. The case will be heard by the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia.
  • Reports from advocates and investigative journalists about the conditions of confinement for detained immigrants continue to paint a bleak picture of Covid-19 behind immigration detention facility bars. For example, those inside the Stewart Detention Center (which is operated by the private company CoreCivic) report "wretched food, ice cold showers," and extended periods of isolation. Detainees and their lawyers have brought complaints of inadequate medical care, food access, and little-to-no social distancing measures aside from placing infected individuals in solitary confinement. As of January 4, there were at least 429 confirmed cases of Covid-19 at the Stewart Detention Center, in addition to a minimum of three deaths.
  • On January 6, the Abolish ICE NY-NJ Coalition, speaking on behalf of some individuals detained at the ICE detention facility in Newark, NJ, announced that 86 people within the facility are participating in a hunger strike to demand their release from ICE custody. They feel that, given the agency's inability (or unwillingness) to prevent Covid-19 from spreading inside facilities, detainees should be able to continue their immigration cases while living with friends or family.
  • In a January report from the Detention Watch Network, researchers found that counties containing ICE facilities "reported COVID-19 cases earlier, experienced faster spread of the virus, tended to have worse outbreaks, and had a higher likelihood for a health care emergency". In particular, the ICE facilities in El Paso, Texas are blamed for more than 1,200 cases of community spread in that area.
  • On January 19, a report revealed that deaths in ICE custody "skyrocketed" during the Covid-19 pandemic, with Texas leading the country with the most immigrant detainee deaths from 2018-2020.
  • In a study released on January 21, researchers found that deaths among detained immigrants in ICE custody "increased sevenfold since April 2018, despite far fewer people being in custody." Released by a team from the University of Southern California, the study attributes the rising death rate to a multitude of factors, including rampant spread of Covid-19, high rates of suicide, and substandard medical care offered in ICE facilities. There were 21 deaths in ICE custody in fiscal year 2020, most of which were due to Covid-19. That number was nearly triple 2019 deaths, even though the total population of detained immigrants dropped by a third.
  • On January 22, eight immigrants filed a group habeas petition in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia in an attempt to gain immediate released from the Stewart Detention Center, where they face increased risks of exposure to Covid-19. The lawsuit alleges that ICE has been acting in violation of a Supreme Court ruling that prohibits the agency from detaining people for more than six months if deportation will not occur in the "reasonably forseeable" future. 
  • On January 24, the Seattle Times released an investigation detailing years of personal interviews of people detained by ICE at the Northwest Processing Center, where immigrants report problems ranging from inadequate medical care, poor nutrition, unsanitary living conditions, and forced labor.
  • An outbreak at the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia has led to four deaths from Covid-19, along with almost 500 confirmed cases of the coronavirus by the first week of February.
  • In March, Gov. Greg Abbott refused help from the Biden administration in providing Covid-19 testing to immigrants before they are released from federal custody, declaring that it is the responsibility of the federal government, not Texas, to screen immigrants entering the country. The day before this rebuke, it was announced that more than 100 people were released from Border Patrol custody after testing positive for Covid-19.
  • As of March 18, advocates reported that at least 54 prisoners had died from Covid-19 after their requests for compassionate release were denied. A report from the University of Iowa College of Law showed that incarcerated people who should have been eligible to be released under coronavirus-related circumstances died because the judiciary system was overwhelmed with requests.
  • On March 31, the Washington state senate passed a bill banning private, for-profit prisons and immigrant detention facilities in the state. The bill would close the Northwest Detention Facility in Tacoma, the only private prison in the state. 
  • As of April 1, ICE had released hundreds of people to curb the spread of Covid-19 in its detention centers. However, the agency continues to pay for a “guaranteed minimum” number of empty beds, which keeps costs down for private companies operating detention facilities. The Biden administration plans to phase out private prisons but has yet to take steps to address private immigrant detention facilities.
  • On March 30, the Department of Homeland Security released a report about the conditions at La Palma Correctional Center, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Eloy, Arizona. The report detailed unsafe Covid conditions including not providing protective equipment to those detained at the facility or requiring guards to wear masks. The facility has had over 700 people contract Covid.
  • As of March 31, an alarming number of unaccompanied minors detained in ICE facilities have tested positive for Covid. Advocates argue that the high volume of cases is related to negligence at border facilities who lack medical supplies.
  • On April 7, a March 2020 class action lawsuit filed on behalf of those detained at the Bristol County House of Correction was settled. The settlement allows for the continued release of the 43 individuals previously released on bail, release of six other people, and the option to transfer to a different facility for the remaining seven people.
  • On April 15, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill to shut down the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, one of the country's largest for-profit immigrant detention centers. The institution will close by 2025 when the detention center's contract with ICE expires.
  • As of April 28, a Covid-19 outbreak at a private ICE detention center owned by GEO Inc. in Colorado prompted health officials to investigate vaccinations at the facility. Officials report that the outbreak came after migrants were transferred to the facility from detention centers at the U.S. border and that the facility has only administered vaccines once.
  • On May 17, the GEO Group sued Washington state, claiming that a recently enacted law mandating the closure of its detention facility in Tacoma would "unconstitutionally subvert federal authority."
  • On May 20, the Biden administration announced plans to stop detaining immigrants at two ICE facilities that are the subject of ongoing federal investigations. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas ordered the immediate termination of ICE's contract with the Bristol County Sheriff's Office in Massachusetts and and an to the contract with the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia "as soon as possible."
  • At the CoreCivic-run Torrance County Detention Center, more than 16 staff members and 110 detained persons tested positive for Covid-19 in the last week of May. The company declined to provide updated numbers at the end of the week regarding the extent of the outbreak among people detained at the facility.
  • On May 19, 15 immigrants' rights groups filed a civil rights and liberties complaint with the Department of Homeland Security against the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez, Mississippi, alleging detained immigrants are being held in close quarters and do not have regular access to soap or disinfectant supplies. The complaint also explains that ICE has not created a vaccination plan for incoming immigrants, guards refuse to wear facemasks, and the New Orleans ICE Field Office transfers detained immigrants after short periods of time at ACDC incompatible with Covid-19 protocols. 
  • On May 28, the National Immigrant Justice Center filed a civil rights and liberties complaint with the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of two immigrant women, who are in ICE custody and detained at Clay County Jail in Brazil, Indiana. The complaint alleges detained immigrants are not given face masks or hand soap and those who test positive for Covid-19 are not given their test results or medication for pain.
  • On June 11, Carlos Rios, a naturalized US citizen from Mexico, sued ICE for detaining him in Tacoma, Washington for a week, even though he had his passport with him and repeatedly told agents he was an American. 
  • On June 14, a federal volunteer who spent two weeks at Fort Bliss Army Base in El Paso, Texas, publicized that paramedics are repeatedly called to treat detained children suffering from severe panic attacks in ICE facilities. On July 28, two more whistleblowers came forward alleging that the Department of Health and Human Services told them to downplay the hundreds of Covid-19 infections among children at the migrant shelter in Fort Bliss, Texas. 
  • On June 14, the Seattle Times reported that since the beginning of June, federal authorities have transferred hundreds of immigrants to Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma, Washington, and now 29 immigrants have tested positive for Covid-19. A class-action lawsuit has been filed by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington on behalf of older and medically vulnerable individuals. 
  • The ACLU and Physicians for Human Rights published a report examining what happens when immigrant detainees go on hunger strikes. The report found that ICE force-fed immigrants, used excessive force, and threatened immigrants with deportation or relocation to other facilities. 
  • A report published by The Intercept on June 20 found that the six-fold increase in Covid-19 cases from March to May coincided with the ICE’s decision to do inter-facility transfers. The report also emphasized that ICE’s refusal to systematically provide vaccines also contributed to the increase in Covid-19 cases. 
  • On June 22, Georgia Public Broadcasting reported Stewart ICE Detention Center, run by CoreCivic, in Lumpkin, Georgia had 47 immigrants in isolation or under monitoring for Covid-19. In total, there have been 700 Covid-19 cases and 4 Covid-19 related deaths at the facility.
  • On June 22, asylum-seekers and attorneys with the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative of Louisiana condemned the horrendous conditions at a Louisiana ICE detention center. One asylum-seeker cited the facility had little food, a lack of toilets, no hot water, and frigid temperatures inside the facility. 
  • Internal ICE records and emails, obtained by The Intercept, revealed that ICE surveilled immigrant advocacy organizations in person and online by tracking groups’ protests and social media posts. At one point, ICE suggested the agency might retaliate and bar visitations from organizations.
  • On June 21, civil rights groups and immigrant advocates filed a federal complaint regarding the conditions at Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center in Louisiana, alleging unsafe drinking water, moldy food, a lack of medical care, or access to legal counsel, and the use of punitive solitary confinement. 
  • On June 29, 30 detained immigrants at Essex County Jail were transferred to an unknown location, among them were some men who were on a hunger strike, protesting being sent to another location and demanding to be released.
  • On June 30, the ACLU of New Jersey and the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild filed a federal class-action lawsuit seeking to stop ICE from transferring detained immigrants from Essex County Jail to facilities hundreds of miles away from New Jersey. Detained immigrants are facing the threat of being transferred as the Essex Jail prepares to end its relationship with ICE.
  • On July 8, the Texas Tribune reported that almost 150 guards are staffing an empty Texas prison as state officers work on Governor Greg Abbott's plan to use it for immigrants and increase the state’s role in border enforcement.
  • Fifteen detained and previously detained immigrants at New Jersey’s Bergen County Jail filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security, alleging medical negligence, religious discrimination, sexual assault, and retaliation against immigrants by staff.
  • On July 21, activists blocked entrances to a Homeland Security Investigations field office in Newark to protest the transfers and deportations of detained immigrants in New Jersey.
  • Audio recordings from inside the Fort Bliss facility in Texas revealed alleged sexual misconduct by staff towards immigrant minors. The federal contractor also acknowledged the lack of clean underwear, socks, and shoes available for children in the audio.
  • On August 2, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed a law that will end immigration detention and restrict local law enforcement’s ability to collaborate with federal immigration authorities. Jails that contract with ICE to house immigrants must end by January 2022 and new agreements will not be allowed.
  • Also on August 2, the CDC extended Title 42, allowing the US to expel immigrants due to Covid-19. The Title was initially enacted by President Trump. Advocates have called for the end of the policy since it prevents most asylum seekers from applying for humanitarian protection.
  • On August 9, attorneys representing immigrant children detained by the U.S. filed papers asking a judge to release the children from emergency shelters, calling them "unsafe, unsanitary, and damaging to children’s physical and mental wellbeing."
  • By August 10, an outbreak of Covid-19 at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma, a facility for detained immigrants, had risen to at least 150 cases, including seven guards and a federal health care worker.
  • As of August 13, roughly 22,000 immigrants in ICE custody had received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine  a 167% increase from early July. At the same time, the agency reported that 6,000 people held by ICE have so far declined to be vaccinated.
  • On August 13, the ICE office in Newark confirmed that it has extended its contract with the private company operating the Elizabeth Contract Detention Center until at least September of 2023.
  • As of August 17, the Essex County jail in New Jersey no longer held any immigrants detained by ICE, four months after the county annouced that it would terminate its contract with the agency.
  • On August 23rd, A federal judge ordered ICE to test all detained people before they are transferred to the Northwest Processing Center, in an effort to prevent cross-exposure.
  • On September 10th, a privately-contracted ICE Detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey broke CDC guidelines and now faces a lawsuit that could terminate its contract.
  • On September 14th, The Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General released a report summarizing ICE’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic along with recommendations for future conduct. The report found that ICE failed to safely handle the safety and health of detainees by not requiring masking in facilities and by mismanaging sick people who were detained there—to the extent of not knowing if they have received treatment at all.

Government Transparency

Brennan Center Recommendation: Immigration detention authorities should make public their quarantine/emergency plans, both to the public and to those in immigrant detention, and their success in executing those plans.

  • ICE has released its policy on how to mitigate disease spread in detention facilities. It reads as follows: “Detainees who meet CDC criteria for epidemiologic risk of exposure to Covid-19 are housed separately from the general population. ICE places detainees with fever and/or respiratory symptoms in a single medical housing room, or in a medical airborne infection isolation room specifically designed to contain biological agents, such as Covid-19.”
  • The aforementioned White House budget request includes a request for personal protective equipment for detention center staff as well as funds to convert four facilities into dedicated quarantine facilities, with higher standards of sanitation and janitorial services.
  • On March 13, ICE suspended all social visits to detention facilities.  
  • Private prison companies, which operate a majority of ICE detention centers, have issued their own Covid-19 responses, noting changes in staffing procedure, cleaning/hygiene, and visiting policies. On March 13, GEO Group released a press statement. Notably, the statement did not include any specific details about quarantine policies, separation, or increased access to medical care beyond ordered tests. CoreCivic also issued a statement on their Covid-19 response, again without specific policy changes. Note that as of March 17, 10 detainees in one of GEO Group’s detention facilities in Colorado were being isolated after possible exposure to the coronavirus.
  • The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative and partner organizations sent a letter to ICE field offices in the Deep South urging them to “immediately make public all protocols ICE and its contractors are implementing to control the spread of Covid-19 inside scores of immigrant detention centers not run by the Immigrant Health Services Corps (IHSC), which only operates 20 facilities nationwide” and “grant release from custody to all detained individuals at high risk of serious effects from Covid-19.” Note that advocates and health professionals have expressed concern over ICE’s ability to follow through on these policy guidelines, particularly in rural or smaller detention facilities.
  • Immigrant detainees at three ICE detention centers in New Jersey have launched hunger strikes demanding their release, either on bond or another form of community corrections. The hunger strikes were launched in response to dangerous, unsanitary conditions in the detention centers and the threat of a disease outbreak. "They're not taking any measures to protect us," one detainee told Vice. "They haven't done any cleaning. We spent three days without soap." 
  • On May 21, the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice and Freedom for Immigrants filed a civil rights complaint with the Department of Homeland Security, alleging detainees have been subject to chemical exposure at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center in San Bernardino County, California. Several people detained at the facility reported that the frequent use of a disinfectant used at the facility has caused people to have eye irritation, bloody noses, and to cough up blood. 
  • ICE has been releasing COVID-19 testing data intermittently, with periods of silence up to a month long. Additionally, ICE is only reporting the positive tests and total tests, which makes it impossible to construct a reliable daily positive rate, as the number of daily tests sometimes exceeds the number of tests administered in reported data.
  • Rep. Mark Takano from Riverside, Ca is calling for investigations by the House Committee on Homeland Security into the excessive use of toxic chemicals at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center. Many unanswered inquiries have been made with ICE officials about the extensive indoor use of HDQ Neutral in response to COVID, as people detained at Adelanto have claimed that the disinfectant is continuing to cause serious injuries (e.g., nosebleeds, burning eyes, migraines, respiratory issues).
  • People detained at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, which is in the midst of a mass COVID outbreak, report dire conditions, a lack of medical care, and the repeated use of pepper spray by officials in response to hunger strikes. Additionally, advocates for those incarcerated at Otay Mesa say that they were forced to sign contracts written solely in English in exchange for improper PPE.
  • In July 2, at the Torrance county detention facility in New Mexico, a group of Cuban asylum seekers were assaulted with pepper spray by ICE officers for organizing a hunger strike. ICE policy allows the use of pepper spray by officials to “gain control” of someone in ICE custody, with the specification that detention facilities must keep records of such uses of force. No documentation of the Torrance county incident was shared.
  • On June 29, seven detainees who were in the process of suing ICE were transferred from a Pennsylvania jail without any COVID cases to an Alabama jail that had up to 20 active cases of COVID-19. The ACLU calls this “blatant retaliation” by ICE in its lawsuit.
  • On Wednesday, July 22, a federal judge denied a blanket request to release families in ICE custody as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Judge James E. Boasberg recognized shortfalls in ICE’s COVID response, but argued that petitioners “must demonstrate that no court-ordered remedy other than their release will do.”
  • U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw denied the ACLU’s request to release medically vulnerable detainees on July 22, finding that the Imperial Regional Detention Facility in California had taken appropriate prevention and protection measures. He cited the fact that only two detainees tested positive in his decision, despite the ACLU’s argument that the IRDF had not tested all detainees and wasn’t maximizing social distancing.
  • A former officer at the Richwood Correctional Center in Louisiana has reported that he was instructed to blast the air conditioner to “freeze out” ICE detainees so they could pass temperature checks to be deported. Whistleblowers’ accounts show that LaSalle Corrections (the private company that runs Richwood) also deliberately withheld PPE and vital information from staff and detainees to prevent panic, resulting in the deaths of two ICE officers and at least 65 positive cases among detainees.
  • According to Border Patrol agents, as of July 28, the Trump administration is continuing to use public health code Title 42 to quickly return immigrants who cross the border, even those who are intended to go through a formal legal process (e.g., asylum seekers and children) before being refused entry. A leaked Border Patrol memo from April indicates that the federal government is operating under the assumption that public health law supersedes immigration law.
  • The Trump administration has agreed not to expel a group of unaccompanied immigrant children detained in a Texas hotel during the pandemic, but has not stated whether ICE will stop using hotels to detain children. The 17 children covered by ICE’s agreement were removed from the hotel in which they were detained, but as of July 27, ICE refuses to disclose their new location.
  • In September, a whistleblower who worked as a nurse at an immigration detention center in Georgia filed a complaint that alleges a lack of medical care and unsafe work practices that facilitated the spread of Cocid-19. The nurse also reported that immigrant women in the facilities have been forcibly sterilized through hysterectomies.
  • According to HHS officials, the Trump administration spent months pressuring health experts at the CDC to endorse the use of border hotels to hold migrant children before deporting them, a practice halted under court order in September. Career CDC officials declined to sign off on a declaration that claimed that the use of hotels to detain migrant children is the best way to protect them from the spread of Covid-19.
  • As part of an ongoing lawsuit involving immigrants detained at the Mesa Verde center in California, plaintiffs filed documents indicating that ICE and GEO, the private prison company that runs the facility, "misled the court about their practices, and acted in a manner which amplified the risk of COVID transmission".
  • In November court filings, it was revealed that California ICE officials have continuously misrepresented facts relevant to their handling of the pandemic. In one example, on May 27, San Francisco Assistant Field Office Director Alexander Pham promised that all new detainees arriving from another facility with reported coronavirus cases would be placed in isolation for two weeks before being released to the general population. However, later court documents show that isolation has been "limited mainly to those arrested off the street or returning from being hospitalized."
  • On December 9, members of both chambers of Congress introduced legislation to require immigration detention facilities to track and publicly report data about COVID-19 cases. The Covid-19 in Immigration Detention Data Transparency Act would force facilities to collect and submit data to the CDC on a weekly basis, providing numbers that would then be published publicly through the CDC.
  • In a report released on January 12, researchers found that immigrants in ICE custody were denied access to even "the most basic Covid-19 prevention measures, such as soap for hand-washing, and were retaliated against for raising safety concerns" while the pandemic spread through numerous detention facilities throughout 2020. The report concludes that ICE created "unacceptable health risks and violated constitutional and human rights during the pandemic," which is ongoing.
  • On March 14, immigration advocates reported that Immigrations and Custom Enforcement has been releasing migrants who test positive for Covid-19 without coordinating a plan for where they should go to receive medical care. Advocates agree that Covid-positive patients held in ICE detention should be released to be treated but that ICE needs to notify them of the release, so they can coordinate with health officials and nonprofits.
  • On March 31, the Biden administration announced that it will not renew a ban that the Trump administration imposed on H-1B and other work visas in response to the pandemic. Even without the ban, it could be difficult for migrant workers to enter the U.S. because of continued Covid-related travel restrictions from various countries.
  • On April 9, the Department of State announced that it will resume processing visas for temporary workers after Biden allowed Trump-era visa restrictions to expire. ICE will also not be conducting enforcement at vaccination centers after FEMA announced that immigration status would not impede anyone's ability to be vaccinated.
  • On April 25, an investigation into ICE's handling of the pandemic revealed that people held in ICE detention centers had little health protections against Covid-19, outbreaks in ICE detention centers spread to surrounding communities, ICE provided inconsistent data about Covid-19 in their facilities, which made it difficult for health officials to track community spread, and ICE could be releasing more people from their centers to curb the spread of Covid-19.
  • On June 9, 40 House Democrats urged ICE and the Department of Homeland Security to not re-detain immigrants previously released due to the Covid-19 pandemic. They also called for a review of vaccination strategies, release from custody protocols, and safety measures to ensure the health of immigrant detainees. The next day, 10 Senate Democrats called on ICE and DHS to issue guidance against re-detaining individuals previously released due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • On June 12, women detained at the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center in Basile, Louisiana were placed on a communications lockdown for protesting the handling of a possible tuberculosis case, the lack of prompt medical treatment, and the poor communication about their immigration cases. 
  • By July, the New York Times reported that more than 7,500 new Covid-19 cases have been reported in ICE facilities since April 2021, accounting for more than 40 percent of all Covid-19 cases reported in ICE facilities since the pandemic began.
  • On July 16, a federal judge in Houston ruled that DACA is unlawful and halted accepting any new enrollment applications.

Vaccination

Brennan Center Recommendation: Individuals in immigration detention facilities should be prioritized for Covid-19 vaccinations, along with all other people in congregate living facilities.

  • On December 20, Surgeon General Jerome Adams promised that immigration status should not act as a barrier to receiving the Covid-19 vaccine, and that "medical information gather during the course of administering a COVID-19 vaccine 'will not be used in any way shape or form'" to hurt people legally.
  • In collaboration with the the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), the CDC developed a framework to most effectively allocate vaccines for Covid-19. Under this framework, immigrant detainees (along with other vulnerable groups, particularly those under government care) should be prioritized for vaccine distribution. However, this priority status has not been honored in the actual rollout of vaccinations. According to a study published on January 14, only one state — Louisiana — explicitly mentions immigration detention centers in its vaccination priority plan.
  • In January, ICE officials announced that there was no "direct timeline" in place for vaccinating immigrants in its facilities, despite raging Covid-19 outbreaks in many ICE detention centers and the agency's prioritization of employee vaccinations.
  • As of January 29, immigration advocates feared that ICE was not including people detained in their immigration centers in their vaccination plans. Advocates say miscommunication between the state government and ICE as well as the absence of a clear distribution plan for detained immigrants has led to the lack of vaccination efforts.
  • On February 24, an investigation revealed that ICE had misrepresented the steps it had taken to vaccinate detained immigrants, after dozens of health departments contradicted ICE claims about "ongoing dialogues" regarding vaccination plans.
  • On March 12, immigration lawyers reported that Immigrations and Custom Enforcement does not have a plan to systematically distribute the Covid-19 vaccine to people detained in their facilities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has encouraged vaccination in prisons and detention centers because of the potential for the virus to spread in these high-density locations; while the Bureau of Prisons has a program to vaccinate incarcerated people, ICE is relying on state and local health departments to vaccinate people in their facilities.
  • On March 23, 9 people detained at an ICE facility in Batavia were among the first immigrants in an ICE detention center to receive their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. ICE has argued that distributing the Covid-19 vaccine among the people held at their facilities is not their responsibility.
  • As of April 22, 144 people detained at two ICE detention centers in South Florida, Broward Transitional Center and the Glades County Detention Center, had turned down the Covid-19 vaccine. 35% of those offered the vaccine accepted it when offered. 
  • On May 3, an ICE facility in Houston reported that it had begun vaccinating migrants at the detention center against Covid-19. The program is the first vaccination effort in detention facilities in Texas.
  • On June 3, City Limits reported ICE will not say how many immigrants have been vaccinated at New York’s largest detention facility. There is no publicly available tracker of ICE vaccination efforts.
  • According to data obtained by CBS News, just over 1,300 immigrants detained by ICE have received two doses of the Covid-19 vaccine. As of the week of June 28, ICE was holding more than 27,000 immigrants.
  • As of July 13, the Department of Homeland Security has begun administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to detained immigrants. DHS received an initial allocation of 10,000, and the vaccines will be replenished on a rolling basis.
  • On August 3, the Biden Administration announced that it will offer vaccines to migrants in US custody along the Mexico border.