U.S. immigration officials spread coronavirus with detainee transfers

A sign for the town of Farmville is posted near the entrance to the road that leads to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in Farmville, Virginia, U.S.

Public health specialists have for months warned the U.S. government that shuffling detainees among immigration detention centers will expose people to COVID-19 and help spread the disease.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has continued the practice, saying it is taking all necessary precautions.

It turns out the health specialists were right, according to a our review of court records and ICE data.

The analysis of immigration court data identified 268 transfers of detainees between detention centers in April, May and June, after hundreds in ICE custody had already tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Half of the transfers we identified involved detainees who were either moved from centers with COVID-19 cases to centers with no known cases, or from centers with no cases to those where the virus had spread.

Our tally is likely just a small fraction of all transfers, former ICE officials said. ICE does not release data on detainee moves, and court records capture only a smattering of them.

At least one transfer resulted in a super-spreading event, according to emails from ICE and officials at a detention center in Farmville, Virginia, court documents and interviews with more than a dozen detainees at the facility.

Until that transfer, only two detainees had tested positive at the Farmville center — both immigrants transferred there in late April. They were immediately isolated and monitored and were the only known cases at the facility for more than a month, court records state.

Then on June 2, ICE relocated 74 detainees from Florida and Arizona, more than half of whom later tested positive for COVID-19. By July 16, Farmville was the detention center hardest-hit by the virus with 315 total cases, according to ICE data.

`THE WALKING DEAD’

Serafin Saragoza, a Mexican detainee at Farmville, said he and another detainee – who confirmed Saragoza’s account to Reuters – had contact with the transferees when they first arrived. His job was to distribute shoes and clothing to the new arrivals.

The new group was kept in a separate dormitory, but about two weeks after their arrival, dozens of other detainees began falling ill, 15 detainees said in interviews. The Centers for Disease Control says COVID symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure to the virus.

“There are people with fevers, two guys collapsed on the floor because they fainted,” Saragoza said. “There is one guy who has a really high fever. He looks like the walking dead.”

Faced with an outbreak, Farmville tested all detainees in the first few days of July. Of 359 detainees tested, 268 were positive, according to an ICE statement in response to questions from Reuters. While the majority are asymptomatic, it said, three detainees are hospitalized.

The ICE statement said the agency was committed to the welfare of all detainees and continued some transfers to reduce crowding. ICE did not respond to a request for comment on Reuters’ analysis.

Former ICE officials and immigration attorneys say the agency regularly transfers people in custody for myriad reasons, including: bed space, preparing migrants for deportation, and security reasons. With the pandemic still raging in the United States, lawmakers have called on ICE to halt the practice.

Carlos Franco-Paredes, an infectious disease doctor studying COVID-19 outbreaks in correctional settings, said it is not possible to transfer detainees safely in the current environment.

“If you’re moving people, particularly from an area where there is an ongoing outbreak, even though you sequester them for two weeks or so, there is contact with people,” said Franco-Paredes. “You’re basically spreading the problems.”

In an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19, ICE halted detention center visits in mid-March and has slowed arrests. U.S.-Mexico border crossings have also fallen, leading to smaller detained populations overall.

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