ICE Is Ignoring a Simple Way to Slow the Spread of Coronavirus: Let People Out of Detention

Last week, a Cuban asylum seeker called me from a for-profit jail in Louisiana to express the same fear shared by people across the world. The man, whom I’ll call Alberto to protect him from potential retaliation, had more reason to worry about coronavirus than most: He was detained in a crowded room alongside nearly 100 others at a jail run by LaSalle Corrections, a company with a long record of providing shoddy medical care. “If coronavirus gets in here,” he said, “it’s going to be a massacre.”

“It’s going to be a massacre because everyone will get it at the same time,” Alberto explained in Spanish. “Not just one person. Everyone will get it at the same time because we’re all breathing the same air.” His concern is shared by immigrant advocates and detention experts who have spent years documenting Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s in some cases fatally substandard medical care.

There is a simple step the agency could take to reduce the risk of coronavirus spreading and potentially causing more deaths in its custody: ICE could release people, particularly those who are most vulnerable to the virus, who don’t pose a threat to public safety. That would lead to thousands of people being released from detention. So far, ICE appears set on keeping detention numbers high. In the first week of March, ICE took more than 5,400 people into detention, a similar rate to before the outbreak began.

Marc Stern, who served as the health services director for Washington state’s department of corrections, explained that reducing detainee populations would slow the spread of the virus by creating more distance between people. In a recent memo making recommendations to Washington jails, Stern, now an assistant professor at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, wrote that local officials should ask whether there are inmates who can be released on their own recognizance or whether they could employ alternatives to detention. Anne Spaulding, a medical doctor and correctional health expert in Emory University’s epidemiology department, has also recommended that jails consider detention alternatives such as electronic monitoring. 

Fortunately, ICE has broad authority to release people in its custody. Eunice Cho, a senior staff attorney and detention expert at the American Civil Liberties Union, said, “The question is whether the government will actually exercise this and mitigate what continues to be a very foreseeable disaster.” Luz Lopez-Ortiz, a senior attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said, “This is a disaster waiting to happen and there’s no reason it should be.”

As of Tuesday, four people in ICE custody had been tested for coronavirus; all tested negative. But if—and presumably when—coronavirus enters ICE detention centers and the county jails the agency contracts with, it could be particularly difficult to stop the virus from spreading. “Immigration detention is like a cruise ship but obviously worse for many reasons,” Cho explained. ICE detainees often live together in large rooms filled with dozens of bunk beds, not in cells. Then there are ICE’s longstanding issues with medical care. Cho’s experience with ICE’s handling of infectious diseases does not give her much confidence in its ability to respond to something as serious as coronavirus. (ICE did not respond to questions about how many people it has tested for coronavirus or whether it plans to release people from vulnerable populations.)

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Noah Lanard