ICE keeps transferring detainees around the country, leading to COVID-19 outbreaks

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Detainee transfers have led to COVID-19 outbreaks in facilities in at least 5 states. Despite limited testing, over 1,400 detainees have tested positive.

The immigrants began to show symptoms in late April, about a week after arriving at the Rolling Plains Detention Center in Haskell, Texas.

In the past several months, while most Americans have been ordered to shelter at home, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has shuffled hundreds of people in its custody around the country. Immigrants have been transferred from California to Florida, Florida to New Mexico, Arizona to Washington State, Pennsylvania to Texas.

Story continuesSince ICE announced its first case in March, COVID-19 has surfaced in at least 55 of the roughly 200 facilities that ICE uses. More than 1,400 detainees have been infected, roughly half of all those tested, ICE data show. Two immigrants and three staffers have died. Without widespread testing and contact tracing, it is difficult to identify the source of infections inside ICE facilities. At several, employees have been the first to test positive, ICE data shows. But advocates, along with several federal judges overseeing lawsuits against the agency, have voiced concern that transfers are threatening immigrants' lives and contributing to the virus' spread.

Like nursing homes and meatpacking plants, prisons across the county have proven coronavirus hotspots. When state and federal prison officials in Ohio, Louisiana and California conducted mass testing, hundreds of prisoners came back positive. Most had no symptoms. The federal Bureau of Prisons, which decreased movement of prisoners 90 percent during the pandemic, announced earlier this month it would begin to phase transfers back in.

If half of detainees tested come back positive, ICE isn't testing enough, said Dr. Anjali Niyogi, associate professor at Tulane School of Medicine, a public health expert who has been treating coronavirus cases in New Orleans. The more than 1,400 positive cases within ICE, she added, are"absolutely an undercount."

But every exit and entrance into a detention center increases the risk the virus will spread. ICE Assistant Field Office Director Alan Greenbaum acknowledged the dangers transfers pose in a declaration to a federal court in Massachusetts. He argued ICE should be able to move people from criminal to ICE custody within the same Bristol County facility, which the court had temporarily barred.


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