U.S. IMMIGRATION AND Customs Enforcement’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been a horrifying — and avoidable — calamity. By handing out masks late, forcing detained people into close quarters, refusing to release the medically vulnerable, not reporting infections, testing inadequately, frequently transferring detainees, and pressuring staff and guards to continue working despite compromised health, ICE’s handling of the pandemic has led to over 7,000 reported positive cases and at least 8 coronavirus-related deaths among detained people.

A new report from Detention Watch Network finds that the dire situation inside also led to wider consequences: When spread in the communities surrounding detention centers is included, ICE’s sprawling incarceration system added nearly a quarter million cases to the total U.S. caseload.

The DWN report, “Hotbeds of Infection,” released on Wednesday, lays bare how ICE’s abundant failures and dilatory mismanagement killed and infected people inside detention centers and significantly contributed to the spread of Covid-19 across the country. By August 1, almost 5.5 percent of total U.S. cases, according to the report, were attributable to spread from ICE detention centers. The report is yet another damning indication that ICE’s dereliction in protecting basic human rights, grievous medical neglect, and lack of transparency in how it detains and treats people in its system of over 200 detention centers is a massive public health threat — both to detainees and the greater U.S. population.

“The impact of ICE’s failure to adequately respond to the pandemic was far reaching and multilayered,” the DWN report says. “Even as COVID-19 cases have surged across the country, ICE has ramped up enforcement activities, creating a recipe for disaster for those in detention and surrounding communities.”

The report’s authors were at pains to explain that it is not immigrants who spread disease but rather the immigration detention regime — the nature of incarceration and all it entails — that fosters disease and sickens migrants and communities alike. “It is setting up ideal lab conditions for incubating viruses and putting them out into the community,” said Gregory Hooks, a professor of sociology at McMaster University and co-author of the DWN report.

Dr. Ranit Mishori, a Georgetown University School of Medicine professor and senior medical adviser at Physicians for Human Rights, said, “The United States has a long history of scapegoating immigrants for the spread of infectious diseases, yet medical evidence suggests that punitive immigration enforcement — such as packing detention facilities or scaring immigrants away from accessing medical care — is the true threat to public health.”

Danielle Bennett, an ICE spokesperson, told The Intercept that since the outbreak, the agency “has taken extensive steps to safeguard all detainees, staff and contractors, including: reducing the number of detainees in custody by placing individuals on alternatives to detention programs, suspending social visitation, incorporating social distancing practices with staggered meals and recreation times, and through the use of testing, cohorting and medical isolation.”

BETWEEN MAY 1 and August 1, the DWN report found, ICE detention facilities were responsible for over 245,000 Covid-19 cases throughout the country. If a separate country had reported the number of Covid-19 cases attributed just to ICE detention facilities at that point, it would have ranked 16th in the world, having a higher case rate than Germany, France, and Canada. The infection rate inside immigration detention centers was 13 times higher than that of the general U.S. population, which would have, taken together, made them by far the most contagious country in the world, according to World Health Organization stats.

“Hotbeds of Infection” takes advantage of county-level data on coronavirus infections made available by the New York Times. The authors examined links between ICE detention facilities and confirmed cases of Covid-19 in nearby counties. Focusing on the initial spread of Covid-19 and based on logistic regression modeling, the report provides evidence that Covid-19 arrived sooner — in April and May — and outbreaks were more severe in counties with ICE facilities, as well as in neighboring counties. Over the summer, there was a sharp contrast between counties situated in multicounty economic areas with a high number of people detained by ICE and counties situated in areas with fewer people detained. As the pandemic spiraled out of control over the summer, the health care system in economic areas with a significant ICE presence were burdened by thousands of additional Covid-19 cases.

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John Washington