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The National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) provides legal services to individuals in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody throughout the United States. Our Adult Detention Project provides direct legal representation and know-your-rights programming to immigrants in detention at jails in Illinois, Kentucky and Wisconsin, and our LGBT Immigrant Rights Initiative represents immigrants who identify as LGBTQI throughout the country. Through a cooperative initiative with the San Diego Federal Defenders, NIJC staff routinely serve individuals in criminal custody and in their transition to immigration custody following a criminal prosecution. Finally, NIJC’s Federal Litigation Project represents a significant number of individuals detained around the country, both in petitions for review before the federal courts and in habeas litigation to challenge their prolonged detention.

As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, NIJC attorneys continue to work zealously to represent our clients who remain in ICE custody. Our attorneys and legal assistants are in regular touch with clients by phone, and we’ve been talking with them about their current detention conditions and the possible vulnerabilities they face in detention.

Across the board, NIJC clients are expressing a palpable fear at the vulnerability they face while remaining in detention during the COVID-19 pandemic. They are worried not only for themselves but for their families with whom they have difficulty communicating outside the detention centers. This fear is exacerbated by a universal perception that little to nothing has changed in the operation of the detention centers where they are housed since the onset of the pandemic. Our clients also universally report that neither ICE nor facility staff have provided them with meaningful information or education about the pandemic, leaving them to manage their anxieties—and medical issues—with little or no reliable information about what precautionary measures they could be taking.


Most COVID-19 information is coming from TV news

Not one NIJC client in detention has reported receiving reliable information or training about what COVID-19 is and precautionary measures that might be taken to halt its spread. Most clients reported that they received no information whatsoever from ICE or facility staff, much less medical staff, about the virus. What they knew, they received almost exclusively from watching television.

Two clients detained at the Jerome Combs Detention Center in Kankakee, Illinois, and another client detained at the Aurora Contract Facility in Colorado reported that no one at the facility had communicated directly with them about the virus, but that they learned about the virus from the news.

Another client detained at McHenry County Jail in Illinois reported that he knew about the virus because visitation was cancelled, and an official told him that if one person in detention got in contact with coronavirus, then everyone might be “down for a minute,” but if the detainees got sick, they wouldn’t let them go to the doctor. Other clients at McHenry said that they learned of the virus only through the television, one noting he was concerned by news reports that people who are incarcerated are at greater risk.

An NIJC client at Pulaski County Jail in southern Illinois reported that an ICE officer told detained immigrants about the virus, but provided no information other than stating that those in detention were at risk of getting the virus, and may have already gotten it. The officer, our client reported, told them not to panic.

Two clients at Dodge County Detention Center in Wisconsin similarly reported receiving no information about the virus other than through posted signs or what they see on the news.

Learning of the pandemic through the television and correspondence with family and friends on the outside, but without reliable information or training on precautionary measures from staff, leaves our clients in detention with more questions than answers as to how to protect themselves and others. One of the men detained at Jerome Combs, who learned of the virus through the news, explained that “everyone is anxious” because they have been watching the news and seeing recommendations that people not cluster in groups of 10 or more people, which is impossible at that facility because it houses 48 people per block.


Basic Hygiene Supplies are Missing

NIJC clients all report that little to nothing has changed since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic with regard to their access to supplies that would allow them to take precautionary measures to protect their health and the health of others detained with them, such as soap, hand sanitizer, or other cleaning supplies.

One NIJC client at Jerome Combs meets the Center for Disease Control definition of a person of higher risk for COVID-19 because he suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure. Yet he reported that the facility had not “done much of anything” in response to COVID-19. As far as he had observed, there were no additional medical personnel at the facility, and the staff had not asked him about symptoms at all. He additionally noted that he and other immigrants in detention did not have access to any extra cleaning supplies to keep their living areas sanitized.

Across all facilities where NIJC clients are detained, our clients have reported that they lack access to soap and hand sanitizer — a longstanding complaint across the ICE detention system. Two NIJC clients at McHenry County Jail reported that they and others in detention did not have access to hand sanitizer or cleaning supplies and could only access soap by paying for it at the jail commissary, an option many people cannot afford.

Another NIJC client at Otay Mesa Detention Center in California noted that while he and other immigrants in detention have access to soap they do not always have access to clean water, and have no access to disinfectant or other cleaning supplies, even though their living spaces are dirty. An NIJC client at Dodge County in Wisconsin echoed similar concerns, noting that she and others have no access to hand sanitizer (even though it is provided for jail officials) or cleaning supplies.

In Aurora, Colorado, an NIJC client reported that the immigrants in detention must ask officers for soap and it is only sometimes provided; the only guaranteed way to get bar soap is to buy it for approximately $3 at the commissary. A client detained at the Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana noted similarly that neither soap nor hand sanitizer is available. And an NIJC client recently transferred to the Eden Detention Center in Texas explained that he had been given shampoo, a toothbrush and toothpaste, but no hand soap, despite having asked multiple times.

Others noted particular concern with the lack of precautions taken by ICE and facility staff in the jails’ kitchens, where many immigrants provide labor. Two NIJC clients detained at McHenry County expressed concern that although they continue working in the kitchen through the pandemic, they have not been given any new safety supplies. In Aurora, an NIJC client reported that immigrants in detention also continue to bear responsibility for daily cleaning the bathrooms and floors. They had not been provided with masks or other safety supplies, and only sometimes were given gloves. A person detained in Otay Mesa reported to us that some officials appeared to be coming to work at the detention center with the flu or another illness, and that there were rumors that some people may be infected or will be transferred. This conduct continues with no announcements from ICE or the facility officials about how to prepare for the virus.


Uncertainty regarding quarantine or isolation practices

NIJC clients and the immigrants detained with them have told us they observed what appears to be random practices with regard to the use of quarantine. In Aurora, one individual reported that there were approximately 10 people in quarantine, but no officials had explained why. At the Winn Correctional Center, an individual had observed that more than 35 new individuals arrived at the facility last week, and were being kept separate from the rest of the population. This person saw that jail officials were not using gloves or masks and was concerned that people coming into the facility could be bringing the virus in.


Dangerous transfers

Over the past week, one NIJC client was transferred out of Otay Mesa and then back again, and reported that he was gravely concerned that during his transfer he may have been exposed to COVID-19. Our client was called out of his room and told he was being transferred, and was taken from booking and then put into a room with eight other people. He described the room where they were held as small, hot and stuffy, with two people in the room coughing and visibly ill. Our client and the other seven people were left in the room all night, sleeping next to each other for lack of space, with no access to soap.

The next morning, our client was transported on a bus with about 30 people, including the two people who were visibly ill, to the Adelanto ICE Processing Center in Adelanto, California. At Adelanto, our client was held in a large room, now separated from the two people who had appeared ill. Our client is now back at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, but being held in quarantine with others. He is scared regarding his own exposure and vulnerabilities, and those around him.  The client reported no temperature checks or other screening during these transfers.

Similarly, all individuals at the facility that NIJC serves in Kenosha, Wisconsin, were abruptly transferred out of the facility.  Those individuals were transported to other facilities, some in Illinois but others as far off as Eden, Texas. Individuals who were transferred in this process received no testing or separation on either end of their journeys. Of the people we have spoken to as part of this transfer, we are aware of no temperature checks or other screening.


ICE’s radio silence

NIJC has tried to raise these issues in a variety of manners. With the jails that detain individuals in the Chicago Area of Responsibility — NIJC’s primary service area — we have contacted the jails directly by mail and in some cases email or phone. We have not received responses to our queries about what they intend to do to safeguard our clients.

We also sent a letter to the ICE Field Office Director for the Chicago Area of Responsibility inquiring about ICE’s protocols and raising concern about the health and safety of our clients, but we have not received a response.

In the case of one of our clients facing prolonged detention in Aurora, we amended a pending request for release to ask that COVID-19 be taken into consideration in the request for release. We pointed out that ICE has the authority to release such individuals and cited notice from ICE stating that it would adjust detention practices as to new enforcement efforts. We received an immediate rejection notice to this request.

Additionally concerning, the ICE Field Office in Chicago indicated that it was closed, leaving NIJC with little hope that requests pertaining to individual clients in our area will receive a response.

NIJC’s legal teams will continue fighting for our clients. ICE’s reckless disregard for the advice of public health experts leaves us worried for our clients and their loved ones and all our communities. We call on ICE to immediately release as many immigrants as possible and to work in consultation with local and state health officials to ensure that those who are in custody are receiving proper care and are released to local hospitals or their own homes if ill. We call on Congress to stand strong against ANY funding for ICE or CBP in connection with COVID-19; these agencies are not equipped to provide medical care, and funding them to do so will have disastrous consequences.

Keren Zwick is NIJC's director of litigation.