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Crowded Immigration Detention Centers See Spike in COVID-19 Cases

Dozens of asylum-seeking migrants from Central America walk north before surrendering to the U.S. Border Patrol after crossing the Rio Grande River into the United States from Mexico in La Joya, Texas, May 7, 2021. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

Overcrowded U.S. immigration detention centers have seen a huge spike in COVID-19 infections in recent months, according to a new report.

As the border crisis worsened, the number of migrants being held in detention centers has almost doubled: More than 26,000 migrants were detained in facilities last week, compared to roughly 14,000 in April, according to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE).

Meanwhile, a new report by the New York Times found that more than 7,500 new cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the centers between April and last week. The cases make up more than 40 percent of all reported cases in ICE facilities since the start of the pandemic, the report says.

Public health officials say the spike is concerning as only around 20 percent of the detainees in the migration centers have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, according to the report. 

“You have people coming in and out of the facility, into communities where incomplete vaccination allows these variants to flourish, and then you bring them inside the facilities, and that variant will spread,” said Dr. Sharon Dolovich, director of the Covid Behind Bars Data Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. “What you’re describing is the combination of insufficient vaccination plus the evolution of the virus, and that is really scary.”

The report cites several reasons for the spike in cases, including transfers of detainees between facilities, insufficient testing and lax COVID-19 safety measures.

However, an ICE spokeswoman told the paper that all new detainees were tested for the coronavirus and are held in quarantine for 14 days on arrival.

“On-site medical professionals are credited with reducing the risk of further spreading the disease by immediately testing, identifying and isolating the exposed detainees to mitigate the spread of infection,” the spokeswoman said.

The report follows months of criticism over how ICE has run its detention facilities during the pandemic — under both the Biden and Trump administrations.

In November, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security and ICE in an attempt to force federal agencies to disclose information about the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic in the detention centers.

“For the better part of this year, public health experts have been sounding the alarm that immigrant detention centers would be hotspots for the spread of COVID-19. Fiscal Year 2020, which ended September 30, was the deadliest year for ICE detention in 15 years,” the ACLU said in a statement at the time. “This year has also seen numerous reports about the lack of even basic COVID precautions taken by ICE, as well as evidence that ICE has attempted to silence detainees who tried to speak out for better care.”

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