Report: Ongoing transfer of ICE detainees leading to COVID-19 outbreaks

National News

Homeland Security buses that carried migrants sits at a facility near the border with Mexico Tuesday, July 1, 2014, in San Diego. Homeland Security buses carrying migrants have been rerouted to a customs and border facility in San Diego County after American flag-waving protesters blocked the group from reaching a suburban processing center. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — To slow the spread of the coronavirus, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement continues to shuffle and transfer hundreds of detainees. But it has led to outbreaks at facilities, according to NBC News.

Citing attorneys, news reports, and ICE declarations filed in federal courts, NBC News said the transfers have led to outbreaks in Texas, Ohio, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

Haskell County officials told NBC News that recently transferred migrants were being held with other recent transfers in dorms at the Rolling Plains Detention Center in Haskell, Texas. Initially, three transfers tested positive for the coronavirus, then 20. As of Friday, 41 detainees have tested positive for the coronavirus at the Haskell facility, though it’s not clear how many of them are transfers.

Haskell is located about 30 miles north of Anson, Texas, which is home to ICE’s newly opened Bluebonnet Detention Center, where 132 detainees have tested positive for the coronavirus, the second-most in the nation.

NBC News report that ICE detainees have been transferred from California to Florida, Florida to New Mexico, Arizona to Washington State, and Pennsylvania to Texas.

Dr. Franklyn Rocha Cabrero, left, and Dr. Claudia Alvarez, center, and others protest conditions that detainees being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement face outside of the Broward Transitional Center, during the new coronavirus pandemic, Friday, May 1, 2020, in Pompano Beach, Fla. A Miami federal judge has ordered the release of some detainees from ICE custody at three South Florida detention centers due to conditions related to COVID-19. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

In recent weeks, Democratic lawmakers have not only called for a halt to the transferring of detainees but also the release of vulnerable detainees, expanded testing, as well an investigation into conditions at ICE facilities.

On Friday, 17 Senate Democrats penned a letter demanding that U.S. Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad F. Wolf immediately take steps to halt the transfer of individuals in ICE custody to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. The senators also asked ICE to stop transferring detainees into the ICE system from the federal prison system or state and local law enforcement agencies.

The letter also called for ICE to expand COVID-19 testing at all ICE facilities, including processing centers, privately run facilities, and local jails contracting with ICE.

“Testing and outbreak patterns make clear that these inter-facility transfers result in virus outbreak in previously unaffected jails,” the senators wrote. “Yet, ICE has initiated transfers from facilities with high concentrations of COVID-19 positive cases to facilities with no known cases. According to reports, on April 11, ICE transferred 72 individuals from jails in Pennsylvania and New York with a significant number of COVID-19 cases to a facility in Prairieland, Texas. Within two weeks, the Texas facility found itself with 41 cases of COVID-19—far more than it had seen before.”

Currently, 1,406 ICE detainees and 44 employees at ICE detention centers have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to data published on ICE’s website. There have also been 123 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among ICE employees who are not assigned to the detention facilities, numbers show.

NBC News said ICE would not provide information on how many transfers have been conducted since the pandemic began, but the news organization identified nearly 80, including moves between immigration detention facilities as well as from criminal to ICE custody.

On its website, ICE says it instituted screening guidance for new detainees who arrive at facilities. ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC) isolates at-risk detainees with fever and/or respiratory symptoms and observe them for a specified period. ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations has also encouraged facilities to isolate new admissions into the detention network for 14 days before placing them into the general population, the website says.

If needed, detainees will be taken to local health facilities.

In this June 9, 2017, file photo, the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego. (AP Photo/Elliot Spagat, File)

That was the case with 57-year old Carlos Ernesto Escobar, a Salvadoran man who was being held at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego. He became the first ICE detainee to die of COVID-19 while in custody.

Carlos Ernesto Escobar died last week after being infected with COVID-19 while in custody at the Otay Mesa Detention Center. (Courtesy: Rosa Escobar).

Escobar had been at Otay Mesa since January. He was hospitalized on April 24 and died of COVID-19 at the hospital on May 6.

The Otay Mesa Detention Center currently has the most confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 158 detainees and 11 employees.

It’s also been the target of several lawsuits and calls for investigations.

California Sen. Kamala Harris has asked DHS to launch an investigation into the Otay Mesa Detention Center following allegations of abuse of detainees, especially allegations that detained individuals were forced to sign liability waivers before receiving protective equipment such as facemasks.

In a statement to Border Report, CoreCivic, the company that operates the Otay Mesa Detention Center, denied any mistreatment of detainees. Additionally, in response to Harris’ statement, CoreCivic said the company works closely with its partners at ICE and IHSC, which provides the health care at the facility, “to ensure the health and safety of everyone at the Otay Mesa Detention Center.”

Last week, a federal judge turned down a petition by the American Civil Liberties Union to release 34 “medically vulnerable” detainees from the Otay Mesa Detention Facility in San Diego. The judge decided the detainees should remain in custody because U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, deems them “dangers to the community.”

However, the ACLU’s lawsuit has resulted in the release of 99 detainees.

According to NBC News, some ICE officials have acknowledged that transfers pose a danger to detainees and employees. But when pressed on the issue, NBC News reported, ICE asserted to a court in South Florida that transfers have not been known to result in increases in COVID-19 cases.

ICE maintains that it has the right to move detainees at any time, for virtually any reason, but the agency said transfers are “part of the agency’s extensive efforts to stem the potential spread of COVID-19,” including to facilitate social distancing.

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