Illegal Immigrant Detention Centers See Spike in COVID-19 Cases
ANSON, TX – Five months after reopening its doors the for-profit Bluebonnet Detention Center has become an epicenter for coronavirus cases in the U.S.
According to the liberal leaning El Paso Times, the center had been empty for years until county officials brokered a deal with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house individuals detained by immigration. In August of last year a 5-year contract was brokered with Management and Training Corp, the contractor that runs the agency.
On Friday, 111 detainees tested positive for COVID-19, meaning nearly one-quarter of the immigrants housed there have contracted the disease. Bluebonnet currently houses 417 men and women.
Bluebonnet is number two in the number of infected detainees of the 49 detention centers that have confirmed positive cases. The number one place is the Otay Mesa Detention Center located near San Diego with 155 positive cases. On May 6, the Otay Mesa center confirmed a 57-year-old Salvadoran native had died from coronavirus complications, making the individual the first death of a detained immigrant due to COVID-19. The criticism against ICE continues to grow as many alleged the agency is not doing enough to “prevent and mitigate the disease at immigration detention centers.”
Advocacy groups have filed more than 50 lawsuits against ICE demanding the agency release immigrants with medical conditions that increase their likelihood of contracting the virus or having serious complications. More than 400 detainees have been released in different states as a result fo the lawsuits, according to the ACLU.
“What we’re seeing is the number of detainees testing positive in Texas and across the country is exploding,” said Carrie O’Connor, legal fellow with the nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project. “The government is slow-walking their response. That slow walk is illegal and it’s putting everybody at risk.”
U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D) of New Mexico announced on May 19 that the inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security would be launching an investigation into ICE. The inspector general will be reviewing ICE’s response in handling the pandemic inside detention centers.
“There is a long history of disease outbreaks in detention facilities and this is the first step toward ensuring that sufficient policies and practices are in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in ICE detention,” said Udall in a statement.
Udall, along with 25 Democratic senators, penned a letter to raise concerns about inadequate efforts by detention centers to prevent and reduce the spread of the virus. The concerns include not providing adequate soap, hygiene products, and protective gear to staff and detainees.
Of the 2,934 detainees that have been tested for COVID-19 across the country, 1,201 have tested positive. In Texas, 11 of the 33 detention centers have confirmed cases.
Anson, with a population of 2,430, has less than 10 active cases and according to the mayor and deputy sheriff Sara Alfaro, the town has been able to contain the outbreak within the detention center.
“I’m fairly confident that they are doing everything they can to protect their employees and the facility,” said Sara Alfaro, Anson mayor, and deputy sheriff. “Either they are doing a very good job keeping it contained or… Well, there is no other alternative to that because we’re not getting many cases in our community.”
According to O’Conner the outbreak inside the Bluebonnet Center has grown as ICE continued to move detainees from one center to another.
“One of the shocking things is while our lives have been shut down, ICE has been flying people all over the country,” she said. “ICE has created this whole transmission web where they are transferring people, including from places they know have positive cases.”
MTC has pushed back on allegations from the ACLU that claim the group has a “track record of providing inadequate living conditions and medical care to detainees at the company’s facilities.”
“This allegation is false,” said MTC spokesman Issa Arnita in an emailed statement. “MTC’s medical teams are accredited by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, American Correctional Association, and The Joint Commission. Our services are accredited by these national organizations because they meet national standards of care. Our doctors, nurses, dentists, and other healthcare professionals are dedicated to serving the needs of the men and women in our care — and they do an excellent job.”
So far ICE officials have refused to answer specific questions about the outbreak at Bluebonnet and simply provided a written statement where they claim the “health and safety of detainees in ICE custody is one of the agency’s highest priorities.”
Some of the measures taken to prevent and mitiagte the spread of coronavirus include:
- reducing the number of detainees in custody by placing them in alternative detention programs
- incorporating social distancing practices with staggered meals and recreation times
- isolating new detainees for 14 days before placing them with the general population
- disinfecting areas were infected staff members have worked
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