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It’s only a matter of time before omicron spreads through immigration detention

Immigrants in ICE custody are already at high risk.

A demonstrator holds up a sign that reads, “Free all immigrant youth from detention. BAMN.com.”
Demonstrators holding signs protest outside Long Beach Convention Center to urge the release of immigrant children from ICE detention centers in Long Beach, California, on May 8. 
Ringo Chiu/AFP via Getty Images

Immigrants in detention have been at heightened risk throughout the pandemic. They have been confined to environments where social distancing is impossible, at times without adequate prevention and sanitation measures and with limited access to vaccines and information about them.

Now they’re even more vulnerable as the highly transmissible omicron has become the most common coronavirus variant in the US — and advocates say it’s another factor that adds to the already compelling case for releasing them from detention.

Since the outset of the pandemic, more than 31,000 cases of Covid-19 have been reported at US Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities, with an infection rate more than three times as high as the overall US infection rate. Cases peaked in May 2021 at around 2,000 cases at a given time and have since declined to just under 300 active cases among 21,000 people in detention as of December 20. Some of the worst outbreaks have occurred in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, and Georgia.

An ICE spokesperson told Vox that as of December 19, a total of 46,772 people in detention have received Covid-19 vaccinations. But it’s not clear what share of the detained population over time that number represents given that people are constantly being booked in and released. It’s also not clear what kind of vaccine those people have received and whether they have received one or two doses or a booster shot. (ICE does not release that information publicly and did not respond to a request for that data.) That makes it hard to measure the efficacy of the agency’s vaccination campaign.

Absent an aggressive vaccination and booster campaign and efforts to reduce the population in immigration detention, it’s only a matter of time before omicron spreads through ICE facilities.

“So many of the people who are being held are people who do not pose threats to their communities, were detained for nonviolent crimes, who have a lot of community support, who have all the kinds of mitigating factors that the Biden administration has said should be included in assessments around release,” said Jacinta Gonzalez, a senior campaign organizer with the immigrant rights organization Mijente. “With the surge of omicron, these mitigating factors should be weighed even more.”

ICE hasn’t had a coordinated national vaccination campaign

The ICE spokesperson said the agency provides information in numerous languages about the vaccine to people in detention during the intake process and prior to vaccination. There are also educational posters displayed in different languages around the facilities, they said.

“US Immigration and Customs Enforcement remains committed to applying CDC guidance and providing vaccine education that ensures those in our care and custody can make an informed choice during this global pandemic,” they added.

But lawyers representing immigrants in detention say that, in practice, access to vaccination and educational programs around the vaccine have varied widely across detention centers in the absence of a coordinated campaign from ICE headquarters. Some deliver presentations on the vaccines and have a doctor on-site to answer questions about them. Others print out flyers and others hand out copies of the fine-print medication package insert, which can be difficult for people to read if they don’t know English.

“We’ve litigated in dozens of detention facilities across the country. And it almost seems like each detention facility is coming up with their own educational materials and protocols for people in detention,” said Eunice Cho, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project.

It seems that vaccine access has improved since July, when some detention centers weren’t offering vaccination at all, Cho said. But even some medically vulnerable immigrants have fallen through the cracks.

That includes Israel Arrascue, a detainee at the Northwest Detention Center outside of Seattle. Gonzalez, who has been working with Arrascue’s family to push for his release, said that he has chronic asthma and has developed other health risk factors during his two years in detention, including prediabetes, high blood pressure, and hypertension. He did not receive the vaccine and contracted Covid-19 earlier this year, likely from a guard in the detention facility who refused to be vaccinated and tested positive. He has since suffered post-coronavirus complications, including gallstones, which required him to be hospitalized.

Access to booster shots also remains limited, even if a detained person affirmatively requests it. Cho said that in a recent NGO debrief with ICE and the staff of its health corps, an official admitted that the agency had no nationwide plan to identify detained people who are eligible for boosters, to offer boosters to all detainees, or to educate them about boosters.

That’s especially concerning given that ICE has relied heavily on the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is significantly less effective than the two-dose vaccines developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna. As of October 21, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) started recommending booster shots for all people who received the J&J vaccine just two months after the initial shot, compared to six months for the other vaccines. That means there are likely many detainees who are eligible for a booster but may never have been offered one.

Cho said that in some facilities, detainees have reported asking for boosters, but they have been told that none are available or they would have to wait until a certain number of people requested them in order for them to be administered. Others have not responded with a plan to administer them at all. And some detainees don’t even know what a booster shot is or why they should get it.

“ICE has no coordinated strategy to ensure that detained people can receive COVID-19 booster shots, despite urgent need and ample notice,” the ACLU wrote in a letter to ICE on December 15. “ICE’s inadequate provision of COVID-19 vaccines, including its clear failure to administer booster doses, endangers the health and safety of detained people, in continued violation of their constitutional rights.”

Advocates are demanding that the Biden administration release more immigrants

The population of immigrants in detention has grown about 45 percent since President Joe Biden took office. That has made it difficult for detention centers to enforce social distancing measures. And until every immigrant in detention who wants the vaccine and a booster can get it, they will be at risk.

The ICE spokesperson said that the agency continues to evaluate its detained population based on the CDC’s guidance for people who might be at higher risk for severe illness from Covid-19 to determine whether they should be released. The agency has also recently unveiled new immigration enforcement priorities that focus on detaining people who pose a threat to “national security, public safety, and border security.”

Those new priorities outline a slew of mitigating factors that might justify an immigrant’s release, including whether they have lived in the US for a long time, whether they have health conditions requiring treatment, and the potential impact on their family in the US. But in practice, few have been released from detention under the policy so far.

In Arrascue’s case, he committed a nonviolent crime, suggesting that he isn’t a risk to public safety, and was sentenced to serve two months. He was then transferred to ICE custody to await deportation proceedings, where his family, including his teenage daughter, has not been allowed to visit him for two years due to the pandemic. Despite all of that and his myriad health risks, ICE denied his request for release on December 10.

At the same time, the Biden administration continues to fight a court order that required it to release detainees at high risk of complications from Covid-19, suggesting that it has no intention of releasing immigrants en masse. In fact, it has recently opened a new 1,800-bed facility in Moshannon, Pennsylvania, and intends to expand capacity at its Folkston ICE Processing Center in southern Georgia.

“The truth is, there are many opportunities for [Biden] to release people, but instead, they’re really doubling down on detention right now,” said Silky Shah, executive director of Detention Watch Network, which advocates for the abolition of immigration detention. “They have full discretion to release all of these individuals.”