After months of witnessing the explosion of COVID-19 cases in immigration jails and a completely insufficient response to prevent or stop it, Congress is holding a hearing today on the Oversight of ICE Detention Facilities: Examining ICE Contractors’ Response to COVID-19.
The National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJIC) submitted a statement for the record examining the dangerous spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Farmville, Virginia, run by the private company Immigration Centers of America (ICA). There are currently 267 reported cases of COVID-19 at the facility, and least 6 people inside have been hospitalized with severe symptoms. The recent spike in COVID-19 cases in ICA-Farmville has raised new serious concerns about safety and about the facility’s management.
Months ago, in April 2020, community groups and family members raised the alarm about dangerous conditions in the detention facility, as at least 100 people inside began hunger strikes over fears of a COVID-19 outbreak. The hunger strikes were cut short, however, when, according to local advocates, officials locked two organizers of the demonstration in solitary confinement. According to inside accounts, ICA-Farmville placed people with COVID-19 symptoms in quarantine and moved people to solitary confinement. While officers used personal protective equipment, management did not provide any protection for those detained, despite being unable to socially distance or protect themselves from the spread of the virus. People inside described symptoms of fever, headache and vomiting, fainting, and some have been taken to medical units. Yet, in response to NIJC’s Freedom of Information Act requests, the town of Farmville claimed they had “no records” of policy guidance or correspondence with ICE or ICA relating to the management of COVID-19 in the detention center.
Since ICA began detaining people for ICE in 2010, they have been the target of several lawsuits and an investigation by the Department of Homeland Security Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. In spite of this history of abuse, ICA has pursued ICE contracts in efforts to expand across the upper Midwest in Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and in Maryland. ICA even advanced its plan for a new jail in Maryland during the height of the pandemic, when town commissioners voted to approve an ordinance allowing for a new ICE jail in Sudlersville, Queen Anne’s County.
ICE and ICA’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak in Farmville is reflective of the larger problems with the system of privatized mass detention that profits at the expense of basic civil and human rights. As an essential step toward ending the use of immigration detention, NIJC strongly opposes the expansion of private immigration jails, including those proposed by ICA. We urge the House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Border Security, holding today’s hearing, to demand answers from ICA about its response to COVID-19 and to closely examine the company’s aggressive efforts to expand to new regions at the expense of immigrants’ human rights and freedom.
Jesse Franzblau is Senior Policy Analyst at NIJC.