by Julia Travers

Immigrants detained in Farmville, Virginia, are experiencing the worst COVID-19-outbreak on record at an ICE facility. Close to 90% of people detained there have tested positive at the all-adult male facility owned by Immigration Centers of America (ICA), a private company based in Richmond. Farmville currently houses close to 300 people.

A federal lawsuit filed on behalf of those detained at Farmville took a significant turn August 11 when a federal judge ruled that transfers into the facility must cease. The CDC is now stepping in to launch a testing and evaluation process at the center, which is about a three-hour-drive from Washington, D.C.

In June, 74 detained people were transferred to Farmville from Florida and Arizona. ABC reports that 51 out of the 74 people transferred had COVID-19 during intake at Farmville. The lawsuit filed on behalf of a group of detained people cites ICE and ICA’s failure to isolate these transfers from the preexisting population, as well as the dangerous conditions detained people face, which include sleeping in packed dorms. The suit filed in Alexandria’s U.S. District Court also details individual reports of being pepper-sprayed and fired at with noise-distracting rounds in response to protests regarding the spread of the disease.

And in early August, James T. Hill, a 72-year-old Canadian man who was detained at Farmville and tested positive for COVID, died in a Lynchburg hospital. Hill was scheduled to be deported in July.

After learning of Hill’s death, Virginia State Delegate Ibraheem S. Samirah tweeted that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam should close Farmville. “This tragedy was so obviously avoidable that it shines light on how dehumanizing & reprehensible immigration enforcement is in the U.S.,” he wrote.

ICE’s limited safety precautions amid the pandemic fall in line with its documented failures to protect the well-being of detained people. Imprisoned immigrants live in crowded facilities that often lack clean water, soap and protective gear, and medical neglect is rampant.

ICE’s own reports on its limited COVID testing efforts have found infection rates ranging from 28 to 90%. The June transfer to Farmville was not an isolated incident -- the agency continues to move people around the country between facilities by crowded buses and planes, and to deport people in group flights with infected passengers.

Several government officials have become involved in the Farmville outbreak. In July, Northam and Virginia’s two U.S. senators sent letters to President Donald Trump imploring him to send the CDC to help.

Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky told The Washington Post, “While the state is unable to enter this property without permission from the facility, the Governor has pushed for months to gain access for increased testing and disease management. In fact, the Department of Health has repeatedly attempted to assist with testing but has been denied by this center.”

Around the same time of the August 11 federal injunction against new transfers to Farmville, the CDC sent a ten-person team to the center to evaluate the outbreak and response, and to make recommendations to protect those in the facility and surrounding community. The CDC will partner with the local health department to aid the center.

Also in August, the House Committee on Homeland Security wrote to ICA and asked for Farmville records related to the pandemic’s spread in its facility, the Post reports. In the letter, Rep. Bennie Thompson requested the details of the June transfer and, referencing the lawsuit, wrote that “[The] use of irritants such as pepper spray can induce coughing, increasing a person’s chance of catching a respiratory illness such as COVID.”

Along with the ruling that transfers to Farmville must stop, Federal Judge Leonie M. Brinkema also ordered that plaintiffs could not be moved out of Farmville without their and their counsel’s consent, and that the defendants (Chad F. Wolf, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, et al.) must not retaliate against the plaintiffs. She also ruled in the plaintiffs' favor that their counsel and medical expert be allowed to listen in on the CDC briefing to the facility. Further rulings on these matters are expected in August.

To learn more about what is happening at Farmville and other centers across the U.S., visit Freedom for Immigrants' interactive Immigration Detention Map.

Julia Travers writes news, analysis and creative pieces. She often covers science, social justice and the arts. Find more of her writing at or on twitter @traversjul.