Heinrich, Senate Democrats To DHS: Halt Transfer Of ICE Detainees, Increase Agency COVID-19 Testing

Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the senators are urging that ICE prioritize the safety of detainees, employees, surrounding communities

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) led 17 Senate Democrats in a letter to U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Acting Secretary Chad F. Wolf, demanding that immediate steps be taken to halt the transfer of individuals in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody in an effort to help mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). The lawmakers are asking ICE to suspend detainee movements that include transfers into the ICE system from the federal prison system or state and local law enforcement agencies.

The senators are also urging “ICE to expand novel coronavirus (COVID-19) testing at all ICE facilities, including processing centers, privately run facilities, and local jails contracting with ICE.”

“Testing and outbreak patterns make clear that these inter-facility transfers result in virus outbreak in previously unaffected jails,” the senators wrote. “Yet, ICE has initiated transfers from facilities with high concentrations of COVID-19 positive cases to facilities with no known cases. According to reports, on April 11, ICE transferred 72 individuals from jails in Pennsylvania and New York with a significant number of COVID-19 cases to a facility in Prairieland, Texas. Within two weeks, the Texas facility found itself with 41 cases of COVID-19—far more than it had seen before.”

“Shuttling hundreds of individuals between facilities also places the communities surrounding detention facilities at a heightened risk of a COVID-19 outbreak. Despite local resistance, a recent ICE transfer of 200 individuals to the Adams County Correctional Facility—a privately-operated facility in a small Mississippi community—has resulted in a COVID-19 incidence over 40% higher in the county than that of the national average. At the time of this transfer, staff at the Adams County facility were not equipped with protective face masks,” the senators added. The letter also highlights additional ICE facilities, like Otero County Processing Center that has reported at least 92 confirmed COVID-19 cases across the ICE processing center and detention facility.

The senators continued, “Public health experts are clear that frequent movement into confined or crowded spaces and a lack of adequate testing fuels this pandemic. Until ICE halts transfers and expands testing, the agency will continue to exacerbate conditions for individuals in ICE custody and for all the communities surrounding its facilities.”

The letter, led by Senator Heinrich, is also signed by U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).

The letter is supported by the National Immigrant Justice Center, American, Immigration Lawyers Association, Southern Border Communities Coalition, Freedom for Immigrants, Center for American Progress, Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, Immigrant Legal Resource Center, Detention Watch Network, SPLC Action Fund, Human Rights Watch, National Council of Jewish Women, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, Amnesty International USA, National Immigrant Law Center, NM Comunidades en Accion y de Fé (CAFé), Advocate Visitors with Immigrants in Detention, Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center, Friends of Miami-Dade Detainees, Legal Aid Justice Center, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA), Alianza Americas, National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, New York Immigration Coalition, Broward for Progress, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, Union for Reform Judaism, NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, Legal Aid Service of Broward County, Advocate Visitors with Immigrants in Detention, Prisoners' Legal Services of Massachusetts, Catholic Charities of Southern New Mexic0, Americans for Immigrant Justice, Holy Cross Retreat Center, RAICES, National Hispanic Medical Association, YANA (You Are Not Alone), Disciples Refugee & Immigration Ministries, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Project South, Sisters of Mercy of the Americas Justice Team, Innovation Law Lab, Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Doctors for Camp Closure Florida, ALDEA - The People's Justice Center, Physicians for Human Rights, Latino Medical Student Association, Multicultural Efforts to end Sexual Assault (MESA), Lideres Campesinas, Campesinos Sin Fronteras, La Asociación Campesina de Florida, Rural Coalition, Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, Immigrant Defense Project, and the Immigrant Family Defense Fund.

Read the full text of the letter below or by clicking here.

Dear Acting Secretary Wolf,

We write to urge the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to take immediate steps to halt transfers of individuals in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody between detention facilities, including transfers into the ICE system from the federal prison system or state and local law enforcement agencies. We also urge ICE to expand novel coronavirus (COVID-19) testing at all ICE facilities, including processing centers, privately run facilities, and local jails contracting with ICE.

The revolving door between federal, state, and local jails and ICE facilities, as well as within ICE’s network of detention centers accelerates the rapidly growing number of COVID-19 cases in facilities nationwide and puts vulnerable communities in the surrounding areas at a heightened public health risk of an outbreak.

ICE’s nationwide detention system constantly shuffles individuals in custody across 200 facilities. Currently, there are approximately 25,911 ICE detainees facing an especially heightened risk of COVID-19 infection due in part to the lack of access to sanitary supplies and the inability to safely socially distance. According to ICE, there have been at least 1,327 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among those in ICE custody in 54 locations across the country. Of the tests conducted, approximately 50% have been positive. This is more than double the infection rate in the overall U.S. population. Further, 44 ICE employees at detention centers have tested positive for the virus. Due to lack of testing and underreporting on infections among contract staff, these numbers are likely much higher. Until now, ICE has only tested 2,620- or approximately ten percent - of all individuals in custody.

Despite crowded and unsanitary conditions that facilitate the spread of the virus, ICE continues to transfer hundreds of individuals between facilities without adequate testing. Between April 30 and May 12, one report documents at least seven instances of transfers to or from a facility with confirmed cases of COVID-19.

In some instances, ICE chose to comply with court directives to reduce detention levels by transferring detainees to other facilities, serving only to increase detention levels in transfer sites and exacerbate the spread of the virus. For example, when a federal court mandated that ICE reduce detention levels in three Florida facilities to mitigate spread of the virus, the agency transferred at least 200 individuals to other facilities across the South. According to reports, none of the receiving facilities had capacity to accept these transfers or adhere to basic social distancing requirements with the influx of transferees.

Testing and outbreak patterns make clear that these inter-facility transfers result in virus outbreak in previously unaffected jails. Yet, ICE has initiated transfers from facilities with high concentrations of COVID-19 positive cases to facilities with no known cases. According to reports, on April 11, ICE transferred 72 individuals from jails in Pennsylvania and New York with a significant number of COVID-19 cases to a facility in Prairieland, Texas. Within two weeks, the Texas facility found itself with 41 cases of COVID-19—far more than it had seen before.

Shuttling hundreds of individuals between facilities also places the communities surrounding detention facilities at a heightened risk of a COVID-19 outbreak. Despite local resistance, a recent ICE transfer of 200 individuals to the Adams County Correctional Facility—a privately-operated facility in a small Mississippi community—has resulted in a COVID-19 incidence over 40% higher in the county than that of the national average. At the time of this transfer, staff at the Adams County facility were not equipped with protective face masks.

Other small communities like Adams County are unfairly burdened with the impact of ICE’s failure to appropriately respond to the pandemic. In New Mexico, ICE facilities in Otero County are recent hot spots of COVID-19 outbreaks—reporting at least 92 confirmed COVID-19 cases across an ICE processing center and detention facility. The growing COVID-19 crisis inside the Otero facilities place the surrounding small community of Chaparral at a higher public health risk of an accelerated outbreak amidst already limited health-care resources.

Public health experts are clear that frequent movement into confined or crowded spaces and a lack of adequate testing fuels this pandemic. Until ICE halts transfers and expands testing, the agency will continue to exacerbate conditions for individuals in ICE custody and for all the communities surrounding its facilities.

Sincerely,