by Julia Travers

As COVID-19 continues to spread in the U.S., people who are imprisoned face grave threats due to the lack of social distancing and protective gear, among other factors. In ICE detention, immigrants are routinely denied hygiene supplies, safe living standards and medical care, making this time all the more perilous and terrifying for them.

“We are scared. Here, we cannot keep the [distance] that is called for… Please, we ask for help from everyone…We are human beings, we also need to be with our families to be able to help them,” an immigrant detained at a center in Georgia said in May.

The U.S. runs the world’s largest immigration detention system, which relies heavily on privately-run facilities. People facing possible deportation are often incarcerated by ICE for months or years while waiting for their cases to proceed, which most will fight without legal representation.

One of the most direct and powerful ways to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in detention facilities is to stop transferring people from jails to ICE. This transfer process is the main driver of ICE detention. The ACLU of California, Immigrant Legal Resource Center and Immigrant Defense Project recently released a “Flatten the Curve” report that explores this situation as well as impactful solutions.

In most states, transfers from jails to ICE custody can be halted at local discretion. But even as jails and prisons try to reduce their populations in response to the pandemic, immigrants freed from jails continue to be held and then handed over to ICE. In some cases, people granted release from jails are being illegally detained until ICE can arrive. Local and state jails transferred 3,300 people to ICE between March 1 and April 25.

Who Is Being Transferred?

People who are transferred to ICE after being jailed are those who have been arrested in the U.S. and are set to be released. Because ICE seeks to detain them regarding immigration issues, they are instead transferred to immigration detention, in most cases, through the optional participation of local law enforcement.

People transferred into ICE custody include those whose arrest charges have been dropped, who are released on bail or their own recognizance, have completed a sentence, or are freed under COVID-19 jail depopulation efforts. The recent paper states most people taken into ICE custody through arrests in the U.S. have homes to which they could return.

The report shares several disturbing cases, including that of a 62-year-old man in a New York State prison who was due for conditional release but was illegally detained for three weeks for transfer to ICE. He filed a lawsuit challenging this unlawful detention but was still transferred to Buffalo Detention Center. As of July 9th, the facility had 49 confirmed cases of the virus.  

Detention Is a Dangerous During a Pandemic

ICE testing for COVID-19 has been minimal and its safety precautions sparse, in line with its general documented lack of regard for the well-being of detained people. Imprisoned immigrants live in crowded facilities that often lack clean water, soap and protective gear, and they endure medical neglect.

ICE’s own reports on its limited COVID testing efforts have ranged from 28 to 60 percent infection rates. It continues to move people around the country between facilities by crowded buses and planes, and to deport people in group flights with infected passengers.

In early July, the Vera Institute of Justice released a report called, “The Hidden Curve,” that used ICE COVID data and epidemiological modeling to estimate the spread of the disease in detention centers. It estimated, regarding a stretch of time between March and May, “nearly one in five people detained for any length of time during this period would be infected.”

What Can Be Done?

Some states (Texas, Florida, Iowa and Arkansas) require jails to hold people on ICE detainers and transfer them if the agency arrives within 48 hours, which can make stopping transfers tricky. But cooperating with ICE is usually optional. Local and state policies restricting these transfers also exist in some places like California and have been successfully upheld.

According to the recent report, governors, attorneys general, state legislators, departments of corrections, and “particularly local sheriffs” are empowered and positioned to stop these transfers immediately. Community members can also play a role -- this resource offers draft letters to state officials, toolkits for meeting with sheriffs, sample legal text for halting transfers, and much more. It states that ending transfers to ICE is a “simple solution” that will help protect people who are immigrants, and also that, “All of our health depends on reducing the spread of COVID-19 within detention facilities."

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.