Is ICE ‘Culture of Secrecy’ Putting Public, Detainees at Risk During Pandemic?

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Chicago protest, 2019. Photo by Charles Edward Miller, via Flickr

Until a few weeks ago, it was still possible for the Trump administration to further its anti-immigrant agenda under the false banner of “public safety.”

Not any more.

The COVID-19 crisis has clarified beyond any argument that this administration and its U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) leadership are willing to sacrifice the well-being of their prisoners, as well as that of their employees and the public.

On March 19, Doctors Scott Allen and Josiah Rich, medical experts for the Department of Homeland Security, wrote: “it is essential to consider releasing all detainees who do not pose an immediate risk to public safety.”

Familiarity with the infrastructure of ICE detention led them to add: “The nationwide network of detention centers, where frequent and routine inter-facility transfers occur, represents a frighteningly efficient mechanism for rapid spread of the virus to otherwise remote areas of the country where many detention centers are housed.”

Last week, Newsweek reported that 19 ICE employees had tested positive for COVID-19; a twentieth has been reported in Aurora, Co. At least one ICE detainee has tested positive, and numerous detainees have been quarantined.

An ICE detainee and a corrections officer at the Bergen County Jail in New Jersey have tested positive for COVID-19.

An ICE employee at the Elizabeth, N.J. detention center, owned and operated by CoreCivic, has reportedly tested positive.

In New Jersey’s Hudson and Essex County jails, ICE detainees allege a lack of soap as well as threats by guards if they are overheard discussing detention conditions on the phone.

At Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center, a detainee told the Wall Street Journal that at least two detainees have been quarantined.

In Bristol County, Ma, ICE detainees wrote that medical staff told them they will all be infected within a month.

An ICE employee at the private GEO-contracted Montgomery detention center in Conroe, north of Houston, has also tested positive.

Outside Denver, ICE confirmed on March 17 that 10 detainees at its GEO-contracted Aurora facility were in “cohorts” for possible exposure to the coronavirus; an ICE spokesperson refused to tell the Colorado Independent whether the detainees had been tested.

‘Culture of Secrecy’

Less than a year ago, after being denied access to the Aurora detention center in his own district, Colorado Rep. Jason Crow, said: “The agency’s lack of transparency and accountability put the health of the public and detainees at risk. We’re seeing similar situations occur across the country fueled by ICE’s culture of secrecy.”

After detention center outbreaks of mumps and chicken pox in Colorado, Louisiana, Arizona, and Texas last year, 10 members of Congress wrote to ICE: “We believe that recent viral disease outbreaks at detention facilities across the country merit . . . an assessment of your agency’s response to emergent health issues.”

ICE typically points to its detention standards to defend its practices. But the Trump administration weakened what were already unenforceable standards.

Changes include:

  • Allowing triple bunking in “emergency circumstances”;
  • Lesser requirements for cleanliness of isolation rooms and medical areas; and
  • Lesser requirements for clean-up of blood and body fluids.

Last week, the Texas Tribune reported that guards at the ICE/GEO “processing center” in Pearsall, Texas, used force to stop a non-violent protest by detainees demanding adequate cleanliness and medical care. In Pine Prairie, La., ICE/GEO guards pepper-sprayed detainees this week, according to Mother Jones.

There are over 37,000 detainees in the custody of ICE and the Customs and Border Protection. Almost 6,000 of those detained have established claims of credible or reasonable fear of torture or persecution in their home countries. Some 23,000 have not been convicted of any crimes. Those with convictions may have committed only nonviolent crimes or misdemeanors. But none are serving sentences.If they were U.S. citizens, they would not be locked up.

Even before this crisis, humane and effective alternatives to detention were available. According to the Migration Policy Institute, 99 percent of participants in the Family Case Management Program (FCMP) appeared for their deportation hearings. FCMP cost $36 per family per day, versus $298 per day to detain that family.

This program was in place at the detention center in Dilley, Tx. But that center is a for-profit operation run by CoreCivic, and in 2017 the Trump administration cancelled the cheaper program.

A former ICE director told Democracy Now that “even some of the harder ICE officers” would admit that “only a small percentage [of the detainees] pose any public safety threat,” and he predicts that ICE officers themselves will soon be calling for protective action from leadership.

No ‘Us vs Them’

In the criminal justice system, in California, Texas, Louisiana, Ohio, New York and New Jersey, wardens, sheriffs, prosecutors, and judges are recognizing that, for now at least, there is no “us” versus “them.”

But ICE stands apart, acting as police, prosecutor, judge, jury, and jailer. In some jails, county inmates are being released while ICE detainees— held under contract and technically in federal custody—remain locked up.

Despite professed reassurances that it will not arrest immigrants seeking medical care, ICE cannot be trusted. That’s not an opinion; it’s Headquarters policy.

The ICE memo on Use of Ruses in Enforcement Operations guides agents in getting approval for “enforcement actions requiring the use of a health or safety-based ruse,” calling these “a valuable and effective tool.”

With real medical professionals desperate for protective masks, ICE has issued its own solicitation for “45,000 N95 Particulate Respirator/Surgical Masks” to facilitate arrests by its Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) officers.

ICE raids continue across the country, from trailer parks to apartment buildings—and at hospitals.

Local officials should tell ICE that detainees must be released from detention centers in their communities. ICE itself is the danger to public safety.

Editor’s Note: In a related development, federal Judge Dolly Gree in Los Angeles last weekend ordered the government to “make continuous efforts” to free  thousands of migrant children in federal detention facilities who could be in danger of infection. The order came after plaintiffs in a long-running case over the detention of migrant children cited reports that four children being held at a federally licensed shelter in New York had tested positive for the virus.

 Mark Dow is the author of American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons.

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