A dark milestone: More than 1,000 migrants in ICE custody now have the coronavirus

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The front main entrance to Otay Mesa Detention Center in south San Diego, Calif. - Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS

PHILADELPHIA — More than 1,000 undocumented immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement now have the coronavirus, as the surge of infections continues to grow with each new round of testing.

That milestone represents roughly an eightfold increase from a month ago.

About half of the detainees tested by ICE have the virus, even though the enforcement agency has checked only 8% of the 27,908 immigrants it holds in jails and prisons across the country. Most of those in custody are awaiting court hearings or deportation.

Immigration lawyers and advocates warn that migrant detainees are at particular risk of catching and spreading the coronavirus, due to the tight quarters in which they’re held. It’s likely that far more detainees have the coronavirus than is known, they argue, because a small fraction of the population has been tested.

“These results are horrible but, sadly, not shocking,” said Jasmine Rivera, a leader in the Shut Down Berks Coalition, an immigrant-advocacy organization based in Philadelphia. “Health experts and the broader community alike are fully aware of the high risk of COVID exposure that incarceration results in. To continue to needlessly endanger immigrants’ lives is cruel and must stop now.”

A total of 1,073 migrants are currently positive for the coronavirus — 49% of the 2,172 who’ve been tested — according to ICE figures released late Monday night.

At least one man has died.

In addition, 44 ICE employees who work at detention centers have tested positive, the new figures show.

ICE officials were considering a request for comment on the new figures on Tuesday morning. The agency has said it follows all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines in testing and treating detainees for COVID-19.

“Obviously, their protocols are insufficient and not working,” said Bridget Cambria, director of ALDEA — the People’s Justice Center, which represents low-income people in detention. “The fact that 50% of those tested (are) positive for COVID-19 demonstrates that the virus is rampant in ICE facilities, that testing is woefully underdone, that the facilities remain overcrowded with nonviolent, civil detainees.”

The agency, she said, is deliberately indifferent to the lives of the adults and children in custody, and to the health and safety of staff members who work in the facilities.

So far, 20 migrants have tested positive at the 375-bed Pike County Correctional Facility in northeastern Pennsylvania. It is one of four sites in the state where ICE holds detainees, including the Berks County family detention center.

Immigrant advocates say the parents held at Berks and at the nation’s two other family detention centers were offered an untenable choice by ICE last week: allow their children to leave while the adults remained, or be held together as a family indefinitely amid the pandemic. None of the families at Berks signed the papers that would have allowed their children to be separated.

ICE did not respond to that allegation last week, but said Tuesday that it still may wish to comment.

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©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer