For weeks, immigration activists have been ringing the alarms and urging the government to scale back the number of migrants in detention because of high risks of contagion. But despite damning reports of substandard, crowded and unsanitized conditions in immigration facilities, the U.S. and Immigration and Customs Enforcement’ (ICE) have ignored warnings—and now, new data reveals that roughly 85% of ICE detainees who have been tested for COVID-19 so far are indeed infected.
According to online federal data cited recently by the Miami Herald, 425 of 30,737 individuals in detention have been tested for COVID as of April 21. 360 people tested positive. The number of positive cases ICE previously listed in each of its facilities is 375. While it’s unclear which number is most accurate, the 360 positive tests that ICE reported means that at least 84.7% of detainees tested so far have contracted the virus. (ICE told the Herald on April 27 that the 425 number marked the “latest information.”)
Those 425 individuals represent only 1.38% of all ICE detainees. The data confirms the fears of many experts. In addition, those numbers are “likely to be much greater” due to limited testing and unsafe transfer practices.
More than half of the 360 cases came from an immigration detention center in southwest Miami-Dade County, but ICE moves and transfers individuals around often, which increases exposure. About 50 Guatemalans were reportedly moved between airports and detention centers at least 13 times within an eight-day stretch.
Additionally, the U.S. has deported groups of individuals to Latin America, and a few countries reported that the people transferred to them also tested positive—suggesting there are many more detainees with the virus in the U.S. immigration system. Guatemala temporarily halted deportations and asked that the U.S. limit its deported passengers from 60-90 to a plane to a maximum of 25 after two people arrived with the virus. Haiti also asked the U.S. to suspend flights after a lawyer reported that his client had been in one of the detention centers exposed to the virus.
The calls for the U.S. to do more to protect its detained population have ranged from Amnesty International to a federal judge in California, who ordered ICE to “identify and track” people who might be at risk of complications from the virus and to consider releasing them, despite legal status. Those people include pregnant women, people older than 55, and people with chronic health conditions. 60% of I.C.E.’s 30,000 detainees don’t have a criminal record. The agency, however, has shown no signs that it plans to reverse course and do anything differently, insisting that it has been working on “keeping everyone safe, and helping detect and slow the spread of the virus.”