ICE rejected COVID-19 testing for all detainees at facility because it would be too much trouble

ICE rejected COVID-19 testing for all detainees at facility because it would be too much trouble
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) SWAT officers.
Human Rights

There’s really no bottom when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and private prison profiteers join forces—just consider the latest example. Internal emails obtained through an ongoing lawsuit show the mass detention agency and private prison operator GEO Group rejected a plan to test all detained people at one California facility for COVID-19 “because they would be unable to adequately isolate those who tested positive,” a coalition of groups said in a statement.

So rather than ensure the well-being of people in their custody, they threw up their hands because it would be challenging, or, gasp, they might actually have to acknowledge that people are safer not in detention. “These emails show a staggering disregard for human life on the part of ICE and GEO,” Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area senior staff attorney Bree Bernwanger said. “ICE chose to risk the outbreak that is now gripping Mesa Verde.” Along with the emails’ public release, a federal judge also rebuked the agency.

On Thursday, “a federal judge granted extraordinary relief—weekly rapid testing, no new intakes, and a dorm for COVID-positive detainees—for all immigrants detained at Mesa Verde Detention Facility in the wake of a COVID-19 outbreak that hospitalized two detainees and infected at least 7 others,” San Francisco Public Defenders, American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, Lakin & Wille LLP, and Cooley LLP also said.

The judge’s fury was evident: Judge Vince Chhabria wrote in his order that “[t]he documentary evidence shows that the defendants have avoided widespread testing of staff and detainees at the facility, not for lack of tests, but for fear that positive test results would require them to implement safety measures that they apparently felt were not worth the trouble,” groups said in the statement.

“Another e-mail revealed that ICE refused to test contract staff due to fear that positive tests could force them to change the manner in which they detain immigrants,” the groups continued. “GEO’s Mesa Verde Warden Nathan Allen wrote that ICE’s Assistant Field Office Director ‘mentioned he would rather not have staff testing as they may also impact ERO functions, i.e., an asymptomatic person testing positive would require possible dorm cohorts and detainee testing protocols.’”

In other words, ICE said not even this danged pandemic is going to disrupt our detention and deportation agenda, even if it gets the detainees, or us sick, which it has.

“What these last few weeks have revealed without a shadow of a doubt is that a government agency, and those with whom they contract, are deliberately indifferent with respect to the health and safety of the human beings they incarcerate,” Lakin & Wille LLP attorney Judah Lakin said. “It’s infuriating, heart wrenching and, quite frankly, frightening.”

The deaths this week of two people while in ICE custody—including a man who reportedly had tested positive for COVID-19 after being detained at a hard-hit Virginia facility—marked the agency’s deadliest period in nearly 15 years. BuzzFeed News reported that the deaths of the two immigrants on the same day were the sixteenth and seventeenth in-custody deaths this fiscal year, “making it the highest total since 2006, when 19 immigrants died, according to ICE records.”

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