by Cindy Knoebel

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases inside immigration detention centers continues to grow by an alarming rate: at the time of our last report on April 29, ICE  reported 425 cases, a tripling over the prior two weeks. As of yesterday, the number had skyrocketed, to 943. More than half the number of people inside detention centers tested by ICE for the virus have been positive.

And since FFI's last report, a tragic milestone has been reached: on May 6, Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, 57, died in a hospital shortly after being transferred from the Otay Mesa Detention Facility.

Freedom for Immigrants continues to track COVID-19 reports from individuals and the media on its interactive immigration Detention Map, launched April 2. Among other findings, we've learned through our networks that ICE continues to transfer people between detention facilites without testing or screening, thereby increasing the risk of infection within these facilities. While courts are increasingly demanding that populations in detention centers be reduced, the total number of incarcerated people has declined only slightly, from over 32,000 on two weeks ago, to 29,675 currently.

FFI's latest COVID-19 in ICE in Custody Report, released today, contains deeply disturbing accounts from people in detention about the pandemic. An overwhelming sense of fear and helplessness - fear for their lives, helplessness in the face of a system that refuses to help them - pervades many of the personal accounts collected by FFI.

Below are just a few updates contained in the current report:

  • ICE is now reporting instances of positive COVID-19 cases among its detention facility staff. As of May 14, it confirmed 44 cases. ICE refuses to publicly disclose the impact of the virus on third party contractors, but according to an April 28 press report, at a single facility - the Stewart Detention Center in GA - 40 CoreCivic employees tested positive.
  • The report details 11 separate transfers between detention facilities. In three instances, people were transferred from facilities with confirmed cases to one with none. For example, between May 8 and May 11 a transfer took place from the El Paso Service Processing Center, where eight COVID-19 cases had been reported, to the Torrance County Detention facility. At the time of the transfer, ICE reported zero cases at Torrance; as of May 14, ICE reports one.
  • ICE states it has released more than 900 people with heightened medical vulnerability to to COVID-19. However, according to a May 8 court filing obtained by CBS News, ICE stated that is has identified an additional 4,409 immigrants in its custody that place them at increased risk of medical complications or death from the virus.
  • ICE and facility staff continue to violate public health protocols and have not made accomodations for social distancing. For example, on April 30, a person detained at the Imperial Regional Detention facility in CA reported that facility staff were not checking detained people for symptoms and that not all guards are using PPE. The person also reported that there was no access to soap or hand sanitizer for an entire week and that facility had not posted public health educational material. Reports of widespread shortages in essential supplies such as PPE, soap and sanitizers continue continue to pour in.

FFI's report also includes specific accounts of retaliation and abuse, restrictions to phone access and medical neglect. The report concludes, "If detenion levels are not immediately and dramatically reduced, virtually everyone in ICE detention– and those who work and come into contact with ICE facilities – will be exposed to COVID-19, to the immense harm of all of our communities."