On March 31, 2020, as coronavirus cases spiked across the country, an immigrant held at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Buffalo, N.Y., claimed that several employees were not wearing masks and gloves at all times. According to records obtained by American Oversight, after staff brushed off the report, the immigrant wrote: “It is not a question of ‘if’ the Covid-19 virus gets in this facility, it is ‘when’. By you not having your staff follow all precautions available, you are putting all of us being detained against our will in jeopardy.”
Within a month, nearly 50 people at the facility had tested positive for the coronavirus. In February of this year, the facility saw yet another coronavirus outbreak among detainees. Thousands of Covid-19 cases have been reported in ICE detention centers across the country, with data showing another increase in cases as recently as June 2021.
American Oversight has obtained new documents that provide first-hand accounts of the conditions in those centers last spring. These accounts are mostly from the Buffalo center and the Krome Processing Center in Miami, Fla., where more than 200 Covid-19 cases have been reported to date. Last April, ICE acknowledged that more than half of the immigrants in the facility had been exposed to the coronavirus. Other accounts in the records come from detainees in New Jersey and California.
The records add color to what has been publicly known about the pandemic’s spread in migrant detention facilities, especially during the first coronavirus surge last spring: That many people in detention were exposed to the virus through cramped quarters and continual detainee transfers; that they lacked consistent access to soap, hand sanitizer, or face masks; and that their medical needs weren’t fully met. Some staff in these facilities also didn’t practice proper coronavirus mitigation, such as regular mask-wearing and social distancing.
In March and April, detained individuals at both Krome and Buffalo described unsafe and unsanitary conditions. At Krome, immigrants said that they had not received access to sanitizer or face masks. In Buffalo, detainees said in April that they were placed in crowded conditions, that officers weren’t maintaining social distance, and that no testing was being conducted.
On March 23, an individual at Krome wrote: “We are cooped up in here with 110 plus detainees, people are coughing, sneezing, getting headaches and getting uncomfortable. We are being confined here without even knowing fully why and if someone has the Corona Virus here then we all do and that includes the workers.”
At the time, ICE was using a “cohorting” strategy in which the agency grouped together all detainees who had been exposed to someone who tested positive for Covid-19. By placing these large groups of people in close contact, the strategy increased the risk of transmitting the virus to individuals who otherwise might have remained uninfected.
At the same time, ICE continued transferring immigrants to and from other detention centers, a practice that was linked to outbreaks in ICE facilities in Texas, Ohio, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Complaints from detainees in New Jersey and Buffalo regarding the placement of new people from other facilities include one that said that new detainees were only being quarantined for three days (instead of the CDC’s recommended 14 days). One individual at Krome said in early April that ICE was “bringing in more and more detainees,” often without providing everyone with masks.
On May 7, another detainee said that their “life was put into avoidable danger” when they were transferred from a hospital to Otay Mesa Detention Center in California. They claimed that they were not given a mask when traveling or when entering the facility, and that officers at Otay Mesa were not wearing personal protective equipment. Reporting later showed that in April, guards at Otay Mesa had been told not to wear masks so they wouldn’t “scare” employees and those in detention. By July, more than 200 people at Otay Mesa, including both detainees and workers, had tested positive for Covid-19.
In the fall of 2020, DHS officials internally acknowledged that transfers of immigrants between ICE detention facilities had “contributed to outbreaks.”
The records we obtained also show that multiple immigrants in the Buffalo facility reported mental health concerns last spring. They wrote that they were depressed and traumatized, and some asked to receive medication or to speak to a mental health professional. In some cases, appointments were made.
The records indicate that some detainees were denied treatment for certain issues. At one undisclosed facility, an immigrant complained on March 10 about a policy preventing detainees from getting care for more than one ailment during a sick call, even if they were suffering from multiple problems. An ICE grievance officer responded, “One issue is addressed at a time, you pick the most urgent issue.”
On July 21, an individual at Buffalo reported that they were unable to get the correct shoes they needed to ensure they could walk with their prosthetic leg. The person claimed the podiatrist denied them the shoes, saying, “his reasoning was that I don’t pay taxes, he would be the one having to pay for them, because he does pay taxes so I didn’t deserve those shoes.” According to the records, the complaint was closed after appeal.
During the crisis, immigrants also asked to be released, sometimes in light of pre-existing health conditions. Two such requests, based on pre-existing asthma and previous instances of pneumonia were closed and labeled “unfounded.”
On April 4, one immigrant wrote that his wife had given birth a few weeks before and he was requesting to be released under supervision to stay with family in West Palm Beach, Fla.: “I’m worried about my wife and being here is not safe … seems like the world is ending.”
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