“ICE’s failure to ensure a coordinated strategy for vaccination continues to endanger people in detention nationwide,” the ACLU said in a letter to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and acting ICE Director Tae Johnson. “ICE’s COVID-19 plan has left it to individual detention facilities to ‘contact their state’s COVID-19 vaccine resource … to obtain vaccine.’” But the organization said that this approach “has led to widespread failure.”
”While more than 60 percent of adults in the United States have received at least one dose of a vaccine, the vast majority of people in ICE detention have yet to receive a dose: as of May 7, 2021, less than seven percent of ICE detainees nationwide had received COVID-19 vaccines,” the group continues. “In many instances, state and local public agencies have publicly stated that the federal government bears the responsibility to provide COVID-19 vaccines to people in federal ICE custody.”
It shouldn’t then come as a shock that this disorganized approach has had chaotic results. While ICE detainees in California became eligible for the vaccine in March, a judge that same month slammed ICE for taking no action to protect detainees at a site in New York. ICE claimed it had been asking for vaccines from the state to no avail. But when advocates suggested booking outside appointments that ICE could then escort detainees to (ICE already does this for certain medical appointments), officials balked.
“In contrast to ICE’s failed vaccination strategy, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which worked to secure vaccine doses directly from the federal government, has administered over 184,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to prisoners and staff,” the ACLU continued. “By mid-May, the Bureau of Prisons has offered vaccines to all incarcerated individuals in federal prisons.”
Meanwhile, analysis after analysis has made it clear that ICE always had the power to prevent a health disaster within its facilities, but largely chose not to. Instead, the agency worsened it. The pandemic ultimately contributed to the agency’s highest in-custody deaths in 15 years. Among them was 61-year-old Cipriano Chavez-Alvarez, who was ordered released from prison by a federal judge due to his underlying medical conditions, only to then be snatched up by ICE. He died from COVID-19 in September.
Facility workers have been affected too, with private prison executives telling Congress last July that 900 of their employees had tested positive for the virus. ICE has sought to shield that information from the general public. If ICE doesn’t want to bother with vaccinating detained immigrants, it could just release them to their communities so they can seek a shot on their own. But instead, after a low of approximately 13,500 immigrants were in ICE detention at the end of February, ICE had approximately 21,500 immigrants in detention as of the end of May.
And in-custody COVID-19 cases are again rising. ”Data posted on ICE’s website and interviews with immigrant advocates and attorneys show COVID-19 spikes are happening at several immigration detention facilities owned and operated by private, for-profit companies that contract with ICE,” Arizona Republic and The American South recently reported. Among them are a number of ICE sites that the ACLU has previously called on Mayorkas and the administration to shut down.
“Given the urgency posed by COVID-19—including the introduction of new variants and continued outbreaks throughout detention centers across the country from increased population numbers—it is imperative that ICE act quickly to provide vaccines to all detained people and staff in all detention facilities nationwide,” the ACLU said.