September 23rd, 2022 • Joshua Manson
ICE tried to solve its COVID crisis by detaining people in hotels. It was a complete failure.
When President Biden took office in January 2021, the number of people in ICE detention was at a ten-year low. Following catastrophic infection rates among people in ICE custody during the early months of the pandemic, the government had slowed apprehensions and detentions significantly.
In the Biden administration’s first six months, however, that trend reversed. Whereas roughly 15,000 people were detained when President Biden took office in January 2021, that number nearly doubled—to more than 27,000—by July 2021.
During that same period, in March 2021, a faith-based, nonprofit organization based in San Antonio, Texas, called Endeavors, secured a $86.9 Million, no-bid contract from ICE to detain immigrants in hotels – providing a detention environment ostensibly less likely to allow for the spread of COVID.
The contract stated that 1,239 beds would be provided in seven hotels in Texas and Arizona. Endeavors provided assurances that it would be taking COVID precautions, including providing rapid COVID-19 tests upon entry, and requiring masking and social distancing inside.
However, among the people it housed, COVID rates were just as high or sometimes higher than among those housed in traditional detention centers.
In August 2021, an ICE/Endeavors-operated Best Western Hotel in El Paso detained on average of 133 people per day. According to our data collected from ICE, there were as many as 75 active cases on a single day that month (August 17), five months into Endeavor’s contract. That’s an infection rate of 56%.
In Yuma, Arizona, an ICE/Endeavors-operated Wingate by Wyndham held an average of 142 people and our data show the facility saw as many as 70 active cases on August 17, 2021, an infection rate of 49%.
In Chandler, Arizona, an ICE/Endeavors-operated Holiday Inn held an average of 149 people per day in August 2021. Our data show that the facility saw as many as 59 active cases on August 13, 2021, an infection rate of 40%.
How is it possible that COVID infection numbers were so high among people detained in individual hotel rooms?
As we have noted, people in ICE custody – whether in ICE facilities or hotels – may have been exposed to COVID by the immigration system well before entering the place of detention where they were eventually diagnosed. A large percentage of people held in ICE custody were first detained by CBP, where they would have been processed and detained in temporary facilities before being transferred to longer-term ICE facilities.
In those short-term facilities, they may have been exposed to COVID. A Department of Homeland Security Inspector General report from Summer 2021 – just months after the Endeavors contract was signed – noted that, upon visiting four CBP facilities, “all four … struggled with overcrowded holding rooms.” In fact, CBP was apprehending so many people that, at these facilities, “most cells held more than their pre-COVID-19 capacity.“ In these temporary CBP facilities, however, it is unlikely these people would have been tested for COVID.
Notably, in the first half of 2021, the number of people apprehended by CBP grew rapidly – even while the number apprehended by ICE dropped. At the end of February 2021, before the Endeavors contract was signed, 37 percent of people in ICE custody were initially apprehended by CBP. By June, however, the share of people in ICE custody initially apprehended by CBP – many of them held and processed in CBP facilities like the ones that the Inspector General noted were overcrowded and overcapacity – was at 82 percent. If migrants were exposed in CBP custody before being transferred to the ICE/Endeavors’ hotels, ICE may not have known it. An Inspector General report from earlier this year found that “families were not tested by ICE for COVID-19 prior to being transported to hotels and were not always tested by Endeavors staff upon arrival at or departure from hotels.” In the absence of testing upon intake, the report noted, families that were infected with COVID, by the time they reached the hotel, “had already spent up to 4 hours on a bus, exposing others to the virus.” The Inspector General’s fieldwork found that even people with symptoms were not tested prior to being transported to hotels. Allowing individuals with undetected COVID infections – possibly stemming from overcrowded CBP facilities – to enter ICE/Endeavors hotels may have sparked outbreaks at those hotels.
The Inspector General report also found a range of other failures that, while not necessarily contributing directly to the spread of COVID, fall far short of basic health care and legal protocol. The report found that these ICE/Endeavors hotels did not: document healthcare encounters, collect informed consent forms from patients, meet sufficient medical staffing standards, and ensure medical staff knew of the facility’s quality management program. The Inspector General also found that ICE/Endeavors did not provide sufficient information to people in their custody about how to file grievances, including medical grievances, and protections against harassment for filing grievances.
Disappointingly, ICE’s response to the Inspector General’s findings and recommendations was to re-state policies that may have been in place but that the investigation found were not followed. ICE reported that the Endeavor-operated hotels were all closed by the end of March 2022.
The failed use of ICE/Endeavors’ hotels to mitigate COVID spread among people in its custody raises a number of particular policy concerns around immigration detention during the pandemic.
Most fundamentally, the Biden administration, ICE, and all relevant authorities must decrease the number of people held in immigration detention – and keep that number low. Today, ICE reports a detained population of 25,395. That is the highest the detained population has been since last summer, and it is nearly 80 percent higher than when President Trump left office.
The most effective way to decrease the number of people with COVID in ICE custody is to decrease the number of people in ICE custody. As we have noted, the risk of outbreaks in immigration detention facilities is and has been extremely high, even when the rates of spread in surrounding communities are low. And people in detention remain vulnerable– at Karnes County Residential Center in Texas, there are currently 111 active cases. Earlier this year, a group of US Senators wrote to ICE expressing concern that, as of January 6, 2022, the agency had only provided 671 booster shots nationwide and its COVID guidelines for detention facilities did not provide information about booster shots.
Secondly, the failure of ICE/Endeavors hotels signals the importance of broader testing and transparency. The actual infection numbers are likely worse than even these reported numbers reveal: ICE’s testing practices throughout the pandemic have been abysmal, and their reported figures are almost certainly undercounts. In the early months of the pandemic, the Vera Institute of Justice estimated that the true number of COVID cases among people in ICE custody may, at times, have been as much as 15 times higher than the already-high numbers ICE has reported.
Especially because people in ICE custody are shuffled through many different environments – CBP processing facilities, transportation, hotels, etc. – ICE must conduct regular testing of the people in its custody and of its staff, both upon intake and through regular surveillance testing. This will catch cases earlier to allow for prompt medical treatment, and it will also help prevent outbreaks.
As recently as June of this year, it was reported by El Paso Matters that El Paso County in Texas is currently in contract negotiations with Endeavors to open an emergency “migrant processing center” there. This would be a mistake. Even if there is an increase in the number of migrants arriving at the Southern border, the federal government must detain fewer people, rather than increase its detention capacity by investing in ostensibly more “humane” environments.
As ICE’s past contract with Endeavors revealed, there is no safe – nor COVID-free – version of immigration detention.
This blog was informed by analysis conducted in 2021 by former Research Scientist Neal Marquez and the Immigration Detention Research volunteer team.
September 29th, 2022 • Anamely Salgado
Twenty-two states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico do not provide relevant COVID safety protocol on their youth detention departments’ websites. Some states provide limited information. Notably, no state’s website includes information for every category we tracked.