ICE continues with no plan to provide boosters in detention—02-18-22
Immigration news, in context
This is the 113th edition of BORDER/LINES, a weekly newsletter by Felipe De La Hoz and Gaby Del Valle designed to get you up to speed on the big developments in immigration policy. Reach out with feedback, suggestions, tips, and ideas at BorderLines.News@protonmail.ch.
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This week’s edition:
In The Big Picture, we look at ICE’s failure to systematically provide Covid-19 boosters in detention, in the context of its longtime failures to emphasize detainee health.
In Under the Radar, we examine hunger strikes among migrants in Mexico and immigrants detained in the U.S.
In Next Destination, we discuss a new settlement that will prevent ICE from conducting warrantless enforcement during traffic stops.
The Big Picture
The news: Advocates continue to push for the administration of booster shots in ICE detention as the agency refuses to make it a priority.
Since the very beginning of the pandemic, ICE has had a sort of scattershot approach to prevention and control of Covid-19 spread. From short-sighted transfer policies to inconsistent testing to a lack of a clear approach to those who did test positive in custody, the entire response to this severe health crisis seemed unfocused and indifferent (more detail on that below). Once vaccines became widely available, it took ICE months to finally issue guidance requiring it to be offered to detainees.
Now, as it becomes ever clearer that boosters are necessary to provide full protection from the impact of the hyper-contagious Omicron variant, ICE still has no requirements for boosters in custody, apparently leaving it up to local officials to implement if they choose, just as it did with the original vaccine. According to lawyers and advocates, detainees who do express interest in receiving the booster are facing weeks-long delays, a lack of real information about how they work or their availability, or access only to the less-effective Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Data isn’t readily made available, but according to internal figures obtained by CBS News’ Camilo Montoa-Galvez, as of early January only 671 people who’d been in ICE custody had received boosters, a minuscule fraction of the roughly 22,000 people in detention at the time. The agency claimed then that this was due to the fact that people were generally staying in custody for short periods, and it is true that the average amount of time spent in detention has dropped precipitously in the last year. However, the number is low enough that it’s clear thousands are eligible and not receiving boosters.
This is concerning not only due to the threat of Omicron itself, but the risk that it presents when compounded by comorbidities or other health conditions, which have a long history of also going unaddressed in the immigration detention system. Aside from Covid-19 itself, oversight of detention has shown that ICE and its various contractors have consistently failed to address health conditions by neglecting to schedule surgeries, properly distribute prescribed medication, and perform standard preventive and primary care.
Late last month, the ACLU sued on behalf of a number of medically vulnerable people in custody, contending that they had conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and schizophrenia, which ICE was aware about, had specifically requested a booster shot, and had been denied or offered Johnson & Johnson. By not having a plan to provide boosters, the ACLU contends, the federal government is violating the detainees’ constitutional rights as well as various administrative provisions and laws requiring accommodations for people with disabilities. It seeks a temporary restraining order that would force the government to provide medically appropriate boosters, though it’s not clear that this would have any impact on the broader constellation of people not receiving boosters in detention.
Separately, a group of 12 senators earlier this month sent a letter to both Homeland Security Secretary Ali Mayorkas and ICE Acting Director Tae Johnson expressing concern over the lack of booster availability in detention and calling on the administration to provide clear guidance specifying that boosters should be given to those who are eligible and ask for them; ensure that detainees are aware of and educated about the boosters; and provide detailed data on how many detainees have been vaccinated and boosted.
Particularly as the Biden administration works to establish the perception that Covid is becoming endemic and manageable, it’s a bit puzzling that it refuses to provide free booster shots to a literal captive audience who could conceivably be released and go back to communities around the United States, and who are clamoring for the same protections that are readily available to everyone else in the country. Even without vaccine hesitancy rates that exceed 25 percent in some parts of the country, the government would have plenty more than enough in the way of vaccine stocks to boost every person in ICE custody.
That it hasn’t done so is probably less a reflection of an active consideration not to and more a facet of this long-running apathy towards the health of people in custody, which is partly the result of ICE’s patchwork system of detention, which leans heavily on private prison contractors and counties that have entered intergovernmental service agreements to house ICE detainees in their own jails. Under these are obscure subcontractors who handle tasks like transportation, telephone and video services, food service, and, yes, healthcare. Every time a deficiency is identified, each actor in this web points the finger elsewhere, and the responsibility gets diffused across it.
How we got here
Even before the pandemic, healthcare in ICE detention centers was substandard. In 2007, for example, an ACLU lawsuit accused the San Diego Correctional Facility of providing inadequate medical care to immigrant detainees that led to “unnecessary suffering and, in several cases, avoidable death.” That complaint wasn’t an isolated incident: a 2017 report by Human Rights Watch and Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement found that ICE detention facilities across the country provided substandard care to detainees, contributing to at least 7 in-custody deaths under the Obama administration.
It was the third Human Rights Watch report focusing on medical care in immigration detention in a decade. The 2017 report found that both privately run detention centers—those operated by for-profit prison companies, including CoreCivic and the GEO Group—and county jails both had issues with medical care, pointing to a systemic problem. Moreover, health services in many of the facilities highlighted in the 2017 study were provided by ICE’s Immigrant Health Service Corps.
A 2018 report by the DHS inspector general found that detainees at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center in California, operated by the GEO Group, did not “have timely access to proper medical care.” Doctors at Adelanto were reporting that they had seen patients they had never met with, according to the report. The following year, CNN covered rampant medical neglect in ICE detention facilities. In March 2020, BuzzFeed News’s Hamed Aleaziz reported on a secret DHS memo regarding a transgender woman detained at an ICE facility in New Mexico who had to wait 13 days for medical care after telling staff she was bleeding from her rectum.
None of these cases are anomalies. An earlier report by Aleaziz focused on an internal complaint by a whistleblower who claimed that medical care in ICE detention is so systematically substandard that it has resulted in at least two preventable surgeries and has led to at least three preventable deaths. The complaint was part of a DHS memo detailing reports of inadequate medical care at numerous ICE facilities. Detainees were regularly given improper medication (such as ibuprofen for serious illnesses or injuries) and had to wait days to see a doctor after filing medical complaints.
In one instance, an 8-year-old boy detained with his family at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley complained of an earache that persisted for two weeks. Medical staff at the detention center gave him ear drops, but his symptoms didn’t go away. Two more weeks passed and the boy had a seizure, after which he was diagnosed with a rare infection in his skull that had caused a tumor. He ultimately had to have surgery to remove part of his forehead.
At the onset of the pandemic, immigrant advocates warned that the history of medical neglect made ICE detention facilities particularly dangerous, both for the immigrants incarcerated there and for the surrounding communities. It’s impossible to physically distance from others in congregate settings. Even if it were feasible, COVID is airborne, and immigrant detainees were rarely given enough masks, hand sanitizer, or even soap. In the years before the pandemic, there had been numerous outbreaks of contagious diseases in ICE facilities, including a mumps outbreak that affected 900 people across 57 different facilities in 2019.
In April 2020 the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and other organizations filed a nationwide class action lawsuit demanding that ICE release medically vulnerable detainees in its custody. The suit, Fraihat v. ICE, led to the release of hundreds of immigrants with underlying medical conditions that made them more susceptible to COVID-19 complications. However, it didn’t prevent ICE from arresting and detaining people in the interior of the country. The constantly shifting population in ICE detention centers—as well as the fact that guards and other employees could introduce the virus to a detention center at any time—made ICE facilities hotbeds for the virus. Other ICE practices, such as the agency’s habit of unnecessarily transferring detainees from one facility to another—often amid COVID outbreaks—exacerbated the problem.
Nearly two years into the pandemic, ICE detention centers are still prone to significant outbreaks. This January, the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego reported an all-time high in cases, with 91 detainees in isolation or being monitored with confirmed cases, according to inewsource.
Though it dragged its feet considerably, ICE eventually did end up issuing guidance specifying that detainees in custody should be vaccinated, and it’s probably going to do the same for boosters, particularly as scrutiny mounts. At that point, some of the questions will be more practical: are they being distributed in a timely fashion, are detainees being adequately informed of the benefits of receiving the booster, are they being given the ability to recuperate from potential booster side effects, and so on.
The more interesting question is perhaps why it keeps happening that ICE is glacially slow to respond to specific health threats or even provide routine care for the people it’s tasked with overseeing. It’s a question that has been asked over and over for years, decades even, and has never resulted in much of a satisfactory answer, in part because the urgency always tends to fade. Congress in general has not been hugely attentive to its oversight function over the immigration detention machinery.
Problems are identified by inspectors general, human rights groups, and journalists, but then often go unaddressed. Stories of lack of appropriate healthcare and mistreatment of detainees from several years ago read practically identically to contemporary stories, minus references to the pandemic. In late 2019, Congress created the new position of the Immigration Detention Ombudsman, which then was set up by Julie Kirchner, former leader of anti-immigrant hate group FAIR, at the behest of notorious xenophobe and illegally-appointed Trump administration official Ken Cuccinelli. It was filled in late 2020 by attorney, Republican Party apparatchik, and former assistant commissioner of Customs and Border Protection Luke Bellocchi.
As was perhaps to be expected, it did not hit the ground running with groundbreaking insight into ICE’s failures and abuses. As BuzzFeed News reporter and Homeland Security whisperer Hamed Aleaziz pointed out in January 2021, the ombudsman’s first (and to date, only) report to Congress contained remarkably little new information given the office’s expansive mandate and respectable resources. It’s possible that the next report will be more complete, but that’s still just identifying issues to be addressed. Nothing will actually change unless there are real consequences for ICE continuously playing cavalier with the lives and health of people in custody.
Under the Radar
Migrants in Mexico and U.S. detention centers, begin hunger strikes
A group of migrants in Tapachula, Mexico—near the border with Guatemala—sewed their mouths shut to demand that they be granted passage to the north of the country, where they hope to eventually cross into the U.S. to ask for asylum. Migrants who arrive in Mexico from other countries must first pass through Tapachula, where they have to receive permits from the Mexican government that grant them refugee status and allow them to leave the state. Tapachula has essentially become an open-air prison for U.S.-bound migrants from Central and South America, largely at the behest of the U.S., which has for years encouraged (or strong-armed) Mexico into cracking down on unauthorized migration.
Meanwhile, immigrants detained at the Orange County Jail in upstate New York have begun a hunger strike of their own in protest of poor conditions and allegations of mistreatment by guards at the facility. Detainees at the facility say the meals offered by the jail cause stomach issues and that access to medical care is limited. They also say that guards at the jail have been aggressive and racist towards them.
ICE agents can no longer make warrantless arrests during traffic stops
Following a multi-year lawsuit, ICE will issue a nationwide policy directive prohibiting its agents from making traffic stops and warrantless arrests, WBEZ reports. The agency will train its agents on the new policy over the next six months as the result of a settlement agreement between ICE and local advocacy groups in Chicago, who sued ICE in 2018 on behalf of five undocumented immigrants who were all detained by ICE without an arrest warrant.
The lawsuit claimed that ICE agents were racially profiling people in Latino neighborhoods in Chicago and regularly conducted warrantless arrests. As a result of the settlement agreement, ICE agents will no longer be able to make warrantless arrests during traffic stops, a tactic the agency used as part of so-called targeted enforcement raids. ICE also agreed to file monthly reports on arrest data in Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, and Kansas to ensure it complies with the terms of the settlement agreement.