Commentary: What’s ICE’s Response to COVID-19 in Detention Centers?


By Esmeralda Mendoza

ICE California Detention Centers have repeatedly failed to provide detainees personal protective equipment (PPE), administer sufficient COVID-19 testing, and reduce the population of crowded facilities.

Detainees in the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield joined a hunger strike and sit-in on April 10

Migrants in detention centers are a primary example of what can happen when the government leaves vulnerable communities unprotected. As a result of the zero-tolerance policy, implemented during the Trump Administration, the number of detained migrants nearly doubled, making it nearly impossible for detainees to remain six feet apart from each other.

The response by ICE (Immigration and Custom Enforcement)  has led to several human right violations and prompted several lawsuits in an attempt to protect migrants. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) sued ICE to demand the release of immigrants especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

Eunice Cho, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project, explained:

“Immigrant detention centers are institutions that uniquely heighten the danger of disease transmission. In normal circumstances, ICE has proven time and again that it is unable to protect the health and safety of detained people. These are not normal circumstances, and the heightened risk of serious harm to people in detention from COVID-19 is clear.

“Public health experts have warned that failing to reduce the number of people detained — and in particular, failing to release those particularly vulnerable to the disease — endangers the lives of everyone in the detention facility, including staff, and the broader community.”

The lawsuit highlights that there are 4,000 immigrants in California ICE Detention Centers without proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and access to sanitation. What’s more, as of April, California has 97 confirmed COVID-positive cases among detainees in the centers.

It is evident that crowded immigrant detention centers are a breeding ground for the spread of COVID-19 and unless necessary protective mechanisms are implemented rapidly then migrants and staff are at risk.

Let’s not forget that COVID-19 is a respiratory illness with symptoms such as fever, cough, and shortness of breath, but the most severe cases may result in multi-organ failure or death. The U.S. government has implemented stay-at-home orders and six-feet social distancing standards to avoid overwhelming the medical field with excess patients.

However, not much attention has been given to people who cannot physically abide by those standards, like incarcerated migrants. After conducting a self-assessment, ICE determined that their detention centers are following all of the guidelines given by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

ICE confirmed the release of nearly 900 detainees with serious medical risk. Their official website also says they have provided adequate PPE and administered over 400 COVID-19 tests.

What’s more, as of May 16, 2020, ICE reports having a total of 26,660 detainees across the country. There have been 1,163 confirmed cases among the detainees and have had 2,328 detainees tested.

What is ICE failing to report in these statistics and why have they faced backlash by immigrant advocacy organizations?

Kelvin Hernandez Roman, a detainee at the Adelanto Detention Facility, was denied medical attention even though he developed several COVID-19 symptoms and has asthma. He reports that after being crammed into a dorm with about 80 individuals he began feeling flu-like symptoms, like fever, cough, and body aches. Worried it could be the novel COVID-19, he requested to get tested but was denied the test and his asthma medication.

This is not an isolated incident. California detention centers must reduce the number of inmates and allow for easier access to COVID-19 testing services.

A U.S. District Judge in San Francisco, Judge Vince Chhabria, has proven to be extremely critical of how ICE has treated detainees during the pandemic. A new emergency order will require ICE to provide information of 400 detainees who can potentially be released from the Yuba County Jail in Marysville and Mesa Verde Detention Facility in Bakersfield.

Judge Chhabria explained, “The fact that ICE does not have such a list at the ready, six weeks after Governor Newsom shut down the entire state and one week after this lawsuit was filed, speaks volumes about where the safety of the people at these facilities falls on ICE’s list of priorities.”

If the lawsuits are successful, ICE will be ordered to release hundreds of non-threatening individuals back into society and allow them to practice social distancing in their own homes.

The biggest win for immigrants thus far has been that a judge found that the government has violated protections for children during the pandemic.

Judge Dolly Gee of the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles called the detention centers “hotbeds of contagion.” ICE, which holds migrant families with children, and the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which holds unaccompanied minors, are both violating the Flores Settlement Agreement (FSA) during the pandemic, the judge said.

The FSA is a set of regulations for the treatment of detained migrant children in federal facilities which prioritizes their release.

Gee ordered ICE and the ORR to quickly release children who have sponsors and are not a threat to themselves or others. There have been about 60 COVID-positive children in ORR facilities but with this new ruling there is hope that the spread amongst these children will quickly decrease.

Gee’s ruling is a direct consequence of the negligence of ICE and the ORR to protect minors. She states that ICE’s declaration “paints a picture of sanitary, social-distance-compliant, and medically appropriate facilities,” however that picture is “tarnished by declarations of detainees and their legal services providers.”

She continues by explaining that immigrants report “inaccessible or ineffective medical treatment, deteriorating health while in custody, insufficient soap and sanitation supplies, lack of thorough cleaning by staff, and insufficient use of (personal protective equipment) by staff or detainees.”

The chaos in these detention facilities illustrates how the Trump Administration was not prepared to protect its population from COVID-19.

Trump’s team failed to follow the 69-page National Security Council playbook on fighting pandemics, which was created during the Obama Administration. President Trump insists on calling the pandemic unforeseen, but, had he taken into consideration the NSC playbook, marginalized communities in the United States would not be experiencing more COVID-19 cases than their counterparts. Their impromptu response to the virus has caused several communities to fall through the cracks.

While it is evident that most people were not prepared for the effects of a contagious virus, like COVID-19, people must move away from the everyone-for-themselves mindset. Detained migrants are an at-risk group being held in Coronavirus incubators.

Enforcing social distancing in detention centers will avoid unnecessary risk to detainees and staff.

To sign up for our new newsletter – Everyday Injustice –

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for


About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

Related posts

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for