By Katy Murdza
Two men died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody on August 5. One of the men died in a hospital after being diagnosed with COVID-19, while the other died in his cell of a massive intercranial hemorrhage. These tragedies increased the total deaths in ICE custody this fiscal year to 17, the highest number since 2006. Many—if not all—of the deaths that occur in ICE custody are avoidable.
More than twice as many people have died in ICE custody this year than last year. Unfortunately, with 1,065 active COVID-19 cases in ICE detention, that number will likely increase before the fiscal year ends in September. The number of deaths is especially alarming considering the average number of people detained has been significantly lower this year than in recent years.
One of the men who died last week was James Thomas Hill, a 72-year-old Canadian citizen who tested positive for COVID-19 about a month before his death. He was detained for three months at Farmville Detention Center in Virginia, despite being high-risk due to his age.
Farmville has the largest COVID-19 outbreak in immigration detention. As of August 6, over 97% of people held in this ICE facility had contracted COVID- 19. The outbreak began as a super- spreader event caused by a transfer of 74 people from Florida and Arizona. Advocates have consistently criticized ICE for failing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the people it detains. Emails released on August 5 through ongoing litigation provide evidence of ICE’s negligence.
The lawsuit demands the release of certain individuals from the Mesa Verde Detention Center in California due to the risk of COVID-19. The emails disclosed that ICE could have tested everyone at Mesa Verde—but chose not to because of the logistical complications positive test results would cause.
Mesa Verde has only two medical isolation cells, which are often used for suicide watch. The agency stated that it would not have enough space to isolate everyone who tested positive. However, ICE could have used its discretion to release detained individuals who had tested negative to make a dorm available for those who tested positive. The emails also reveal an appallingly slow rollout of testing at ICE facilities around the country. Under the plan, most detained individuals would not be tested until late August, including in facilities with “widespread transmission.” Some detained individuals would not be tested until February 2021.
The private prison corporation running the facility also stated that it preferred not to test its staff. The company said staff testing positive would interfere with detention and deportation operations. One of the emails states that six people who had just been transferred to the Mesa Verde facility tested positive. Due to a shortage of quarantine space, four of them were forced to sleep on the floor of the intake room and were transferred yet again the next day.
After the disclosures, a judge banned the introduction of new people into Mesa Verde, required a separate dorm for those with COVID-19, and ordered ICE to test everyone detained at the facility weekly. Ten detained individuals and 16 staff members at Mesa Verde have already tested positive, but results are still pending. A letter written by detained individuals stated that dozens of people were showing symptoms of COVID-19. Fear of contracting COVID-19 in detention has had serious mental health implications for many of those detained. A 74-year-old man, Choung Won Ahn, died by suicide in May.
ICE had repeatedly denied his requests for release due to his severe health problems that made him especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Some deaths in ICE custody this year do not appear to be related to COVID-19. 51-year-old Kuan Hui Lee of Taiwan was the other man who died on August 5. Lee had been detained at Krome Detention Center in Florida for 7 months because he had overstayed a visa 16 years ago. While further details of his medical condition and death have not been reported, ICE has a long history of medical neglect of people in its custody with serious health conditions. ICE is responsible for the well-being of individuals in its custody and has broad discretion to release people for humanitarian reasons. The government should test everyone in its custody for COVID- 19 and increase releases to prevent further deaths.l