It is now well-documented that the Omicron variant has been causing dramatic COVID case surges behind bars. Earlier this month, we noted the steep increases in cases and deaths being reported among people in state and federal prisons across the country.
The situation is at least as serious among those in ICE custody. On February 1, ICE reported 3,158 cases among those in its custody, amounting to an infection rate of roughly 15 percent. Just two months ago, in early December, the agency was reporting roughly 330 active infections.
At the beginning of this month, Karnes County Residential Center in Texas reported 476 active cases. At IAH Polk Adult Detention Facility in Texas, there were 224 reported active cases. County Detention Center. At T. Don Hutto Residential Center, there were 208. At La Palma Correctional Facility, there were 188.
Currently, the reported numbers are lower: ICE is reporting 1,648 active cases as of February 17. But even that total is the highest it has been in nearly a year, and with ICE’s poor and opaque testing practices, the true number is likely much higher.
It’s impossible to say exactly what’s behind the Omicron case surges in ICE facilities. But with two years of evidence documenting the epidemiological toll of ICE’s failures to protect those in its custody, it’s not hard to guess.
For one, ICE’s population levels are high – almost 50 percent higher than they were at this time last year. When President Biden took office, there were about 14,000 people in ICE detention. Today, there are more than 20,000, down from more than 25,000 over the summer.
Research has demonstrated that high population density is a significant risk factor for high case infection rates. Our own research has shown that, even when infection rates in surrounding communities are low, overcrowded conditions inside detention centers create conditions ripe for outbreaks.
This problem is exacerbated by high population turnover within ICE’s detained population. While the number of people in ICE detention at any one period of time is already high, the number of people who pass through ICE detention each month – and thus may bring the virus into the facility or be exposed to it while inside – is much higher. In December 2021 alone, more than 30,000 people were newly booked into ICE detention.
Second, it’s possible that people in ICE custody are not receiving vaccinations against COVID. The agency, which has remained resistant to transparency throughout the pandemic, does not report information to the public about the number of people in its custody who have been vaccinated. Last month, however, two government medical advisers and whistleblowers sharply criticized ICE as well as its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, for failing to encourage vaccine uptake or provide boosters.
“ICE’s failure to implement a plan for providing boosters to detained immigrants,” they wrote, “is inexplicable in light of available science, government public health recommendations, and their widespread availability. The failure to act with alacrity has contributed to the number of confirmed COVID cases skyrocketing since the emergence of the Omicron variant.”
As of earlier in January, CBS News reported, fewer than 700 people in ICE detention had received boosters, in a population of more than 20,000.
Third, people in ICE custody could well be being exposed to COVID while in U.S. custody, after being detained but before entering ICE facilities. When we spoke with Telemundo about the crisis at the Otay Mesa Detention Center last month, CoreCivic, a private company contracted by ICE to hold detainees, responded that “various” detainees who have COVID in its detention centers were already positive upon arrival at the facility.
If this is true, it suggests the possibility of an ever larger problem: ICE may not be the only federal agency exposing migrants to COVID. Nearly 80 percent of people currently in ICE detention were initially arrested by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) rather than by ICE, coming into contact with CBP agents and CBP-run facilities before ICE agents or facilities. Of the nearly 42,000 people booked into ICE custody in December and January, more than 36,000 were initially picked up and detained by CBP.
Once apprehended, people held by CBP are forced into often overcrowded congregate settings for sometimes weeks at a time to be processed before being transferred to ICE custody. An inspector general report of several CBP facilities in the Rio Grande Valley region of Texas found that, in summer 2021, several of the inspected facilities were at or significantly over capacity limits.
As noted by a separate inspector general report, however, CBP doesn’t test these individuals when they’re apprehended and forced into overcrowded facilities; instead, it “relies on local public health systems” to do so. Rather than broadly testing all individuals, the report explains, CBP policy is only to test individuals who are symptomatic or with a known exposure. Instead of testing individuals on site, CBP agents “contact the local public health department for testing guidance. If the public health official recommends a test, CBP would then transfer the individual to a local emergency room for COVID-19 testing and evaluation.” This process, the report noted, “may not always be operationally feasible.”
All this means that, by the time individuals enter ICE custody, they have likely not been tested by the arresting authority and have been held in close confines for possibly weeks at a time. If ICE and CoreCivic claim that all the infected people in their custody were infected upon arrival, it is likely at least in part because they were exposed at earlier stages of the immigration detention process.
And if so, the solution to managing COVID in ICE custody must occur well before an individual enters ICE custody: there must be fewer points of contact between individuals and the infectious immigration detention system. In other words, fewer apprehensions and far less detention.