ICE Immune to Following Public Health Policy During the Pandemic

How the coronavirus pandemic has harmed immigrants in detention centers, violating the human rights to life and asylum, and what this means about our immigration system as a whole.


Eda Aker | eda.aker@yale.edu


XXX is an undocumented immigrant. He has poor lung function and no criminal history. During the pandemic he spent his days in fear trudging through legal documents in a foreign language, in a prison in a foreign land, faced with a deadly foreign disease. He exerted extensive efforts to be released, working with an English speaking lawyer for months. His condition legally qualified him for an earlier release date than was attained. XXX’s name will remain undisclosed, as he himself could not speak with me, but his lawyer did. Compared to others, XXX’s story is relatively happy — it ends with being released from detention by a judge and is one that is told. For the vast majority this is not the case.


Immigrants in detention have faced multitudes of hurdles during the pandemic to ensure their wellbeing. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, there have been over 25,000 cumulative cases of COVID-19 in ICE Detention Centers since the start of the pandemic. The Journal of the American Medical Association found that between April and August 2020, the amount of people who tested positive for COVID-19 in ICE detention centers in 2020 was 5.7 to 21.8 times higher than the rate for the general US population. Investigations by Physicians for Human Rights have found that ICE’s health and safety practices strongly did not comply with the CDC’s guidelines for public health.

(“Detention unit in disarray at an ICE detention center in MA in 2020”. Image courtesy of CNN.)

The chain of command in ICE facilities does provide some explanation to where the room to violate COVID-19 guidelines come from. Ranit Mishori, Physicians for Human Rights Senior Medical Advisor, shared that most ICE facilities are operated by private organizations with their own standards of operation. While the chain of command for detention centers involves an individual ICE facility’s own medical team, the Chief Medical Director of ICE, and the Chief Medical Director of Homeland Security, she explained there is little way to make certain legally mandated CDC measures are implemented.


Though detention centers themselves do not disclose much information on what happens within the facilities, ICE’s indiscrepancies with following CDC protocol and inhumane treatment of immigrants are told in a multitude of ways; physician reports, human rights advocacy groups, legal aid groups, social media, and detainee testimonies.


Detention centers in the US have denied immigrants the right to life. The right to life, explained Mishori, by definition is to not be arbitrarily killed by a state agent. In the case of immigrant detention, this means that government run ICE agents have a “duty to protect without due diligence” the mental and physical well being of immigrants in detention.


“No matter how you look at it, there were deficiencies in how the disease was managed in the settings and a lack of transparency,” stated Mishori.


One major problem in detention facilities during the pandemic has been the lack of health safety precautions and protocols. The nature of coronavirus being an communicable disease makes it susceptible to spreading in congregate settings— such as densely packed ICE facilities. Without the adequate social distancing protocols in place, immigrants in detention were particularly susceptible to contracting the virus. It is nearly impossible to maintain health safety in centers where detainees sleep on bunk beds and in rooms with no natural ventilation, and the average distance between beds is 2.87 feet. Additionally, as mentioned by Lauren Kostes, a Managing Attorney with the Florence Project, the unrestricted transport of immigrants to and from facilities, and entrance of ICE agents and contractors, went against CDC protocol and led to the spread of the virus.


In the case that a detainee showed signs of sickness, detention centers also did not employ the proper protocols. Mishori mentioned how if a detainee were to show a sign of sickness, ICE also failed to properly test and isolate them in negative pressure rooms— opting instead to throw detainees in solitary confinement.


Another major problem in detention facilities to protect the health of detainees has been the lack of hygienic and sanitary products. Many immigrants in detention did not have soap or hand sanitizer, and those that did had little, at times having to resort to using shampoo to prevent the spread of COVID-19. They also did not get masks until late on in the pandemic, and if they were given masks, they would be low-quality, unclean, and a “one-time occurrence.”


In addition to a lack of hygienic and sanitary products, disinfectants were greatly misused in detention centers. The Environmental Protection Agency found that ICE used pesticides as cleaning chemicals in detention centers. Detainees were exposed to these pesticides which are normally used outdoors, up to 40 times per day, in every enclosed unit. Such over-exposure to pesticides is detrimental to an individuals’ health— it can increase one’s likelihood of contracting an infection and lead to higher rates of chronic respiratory conditions and decreased lung function. In sum, with the misuse of disinfectants, ICE not only promoted the spread of COVID-19 but also left detainees even more at risk from COVID-19.


(“Close living quarters at an imigration detention center in TX in 2007.” Image courtesy of Getty/Paul J. Richards and STR, Center for American Progress.)


“Our system categorizes people into good and bad immigrants and decides who deserves detention, deportation, enforcement, and prioritization,” asserted Tosh.


Not only was ICE problematic in following health safety measures concerning COVID-19, they received significant backlash later on during the pandemic for their lack of transparency for their dehumanizing treatment of detainees. One way in which ICE dehumanized detainees was by failing to communicate with them about the virus. Kostes shared that during the pandemic many detainees with pre-existing medical conditions were not only denied their legally entitled accommodations, but also were not aware they were entitled to them.


“Immigration detention has just become part of this deportation machine and is just really cruel,” continued Kostes. She emphasized the psychological implications of ICE's dehumanizing treatment of detainees. First, since detainees do not have contact with the outside world and many do not speak English, many of Kostes’s clients were not made aware by ICE of the need for masks, social distancing, or even the fact that there was a pandemic. Second, even when vaccines became available in facilities, ICE’s lack of transparency led detainees to continue to be terrified for their lives by being injected at the hands of an agent with an ‘unknown’ substance.


In addition to ICE’s lack of transparency within facilities to detainees, their lack of transparency with outsiders on what happens inside detention centers has proved a cause for public concern. The horrific treatment of detainees in ICE facilities has brought forth multitudes of immigrant protests for human rights all around the US.


One example is a hunger strike in The Northwest Detention center in Tacoma, Washington. The strike showcased the voices of up to 50 detainees calling for more humanitarian treatment for immigrants and to stop deportation until the pandemic ended. Normally when detainees find the means to protest against ICE’s actions, they are punished by being pepper sprayed, thrown in solitary confinement, or struck by rubber bullets. However, sometimes, such hunger strikes garner enough attention to lead the centers to close.

(“Privately Owned Immigration Detention Center in Tacoma, WA”. Image courtesy of Dean J. Koepfler, News Tribune).


On the one hand, Maru Mora Villalpando, an undocumented immigrant, recognizes the success of such calls to action by immigrants. She is herself a community organizer with La Resistencia, a grassroots organization which supported the immigrants at the Northwest Detention Center hunger strike.


On the other hand, Villalpando also recognizes that the reason such strikes happen is beyond ICE’s violation of CDC protocols or the right to health. Rather, the overarching concern for immigrant rights, the humane treatment of immigrants and the right to asylum, lies with the nature of the US immigration system itself.


“This is really a struggle for being recognized as human beings, just because we are, ‘not from here,’” Villalpando emphasized.


The right to asylum, explained by Sarah Tosh, Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice at Rutgers, by definition involves no jail time and granted due process of law for all immigrants. The fact that asylum-seeking immigrants are thrown in centers that were previously prisons, and the conditions they lived under during COVID-19, are reasons why Tosh argues that detention equates to incarceration in the US. The fact that immigrants are denied due process of law in immigration court proceedings regularly, and the worsened legal denial of rights to those with pre-existing conditions during COVID-19, are reasons why Tosh argues our system has failed in protecting the right to asylum.


The pandemic has highlighted how the right to health and asylum are threatened by detention centers.


In order for the nation to move forward— both to protect the people from the more contagious Delta variant and from injustice through human rights violations— our first goal should be to not be complacent. While Kostes, Tosh, and Villalpando agreed that the change from the policies of Trump to the Biden administration have been beneficial to furthering these causes, per the increased investigations on facilities following guidelines, vaccination efforts and funding, it is still not enough.


We must be vigilant about making sure there is transparency with detention centers and with listening to the words of others. During the pandemic immigrant hunger strikes and testimonies were the primary evidence to uncover ICE’s violations, and in the future with Delta as well, we must listen to the needs and stories of those with direct connections and knowledge about how the system works in practice.


“This is a time where we can have the opportunity to reshape society altogether,” asserted Villalpando, “there's no perfect campaign. There's no perfect movement. And there's no perfect struggle. We all are still learning on how to go about this...so I think that there needs to be a huge shift on how people think.” The effort to learn from immigrants and investigations on immigrant detention rights must continue. Even if detention is abolished, that is not the end of the movement for immigrant rights, it is merely the end of a campaign.


Immigrant detention has long been a large topic of campaign in the United States. But beyond the media attention it has garnered during the Trump Administration, there lies a larger conversation that needs to progress— immigrant rights as a whole is a vital issue that needs to continuously be addressed for the health of our citizens and nation.



Writer’s Reflection

When asked, most of us would say we care about human rights. But what can we do with this care? My hope was that by writing this article I would be able to inspire others to find ways to act on immigrant detention.


In my process of understanding, I was most impressed by the mindset my interviewees shared on the topic as a group. All who I spoke to happen to have ties to the issue of human rights within immigrant detention centers. They were immigrants, raised in immigrant communities, or worked with immigrants. The work they did was inspired by their backgrounds, despite each of them approaching the issue through a different profession and method. What impacted me the most from our conversations were how all my interviewees knew that their backgrounds gave them sensitivity to the topic of immigrant detention, but they understood that this sensitivity did not make them complacent in understanding the topic. In fact, all of my interviewees mentioned several other individuals involved with immigrant detention within our conversation. They all put in so much dedication to understand the problems with detention, and act knowing that there is no one or easy solution.


I am of course greatly limited in my understanding—I did not get the opportunity myself to speak directly with XXX or individuals currently in detention centers– instead I used second hand retellings from their legal representatives, activists, and first-hand testimonies I found online. Because most immigrants are willing to talk. Despite this limitation, I hope that I have told a small fraction of their stories well here.


What I learned from this process and what I hope all my readers take with them: there is always a story to write and always a story to listen to.