Immigrant Detention and COVID-19: How a Pandemic Exploited and Spread through the US Immigrant Detention System

Donald Kerwin
Center for Migration Studies of New York

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Immigrant Detention and COVID-19: How a Pandemic Exploited and Spread through the US Immigrant Detention System  



On July 12, 2020, Onoval Perez-Montufa died at the Lakeside Medical Center in Belle Glade, Florida.  Perez-Montufa had tested positive for COVID-19 on July 2, after experiencing shortness of breath (ICE 2020h).  In its news release, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) described Perez-Montufa as an “unlawfully present Mexican national subject to mandatory detention,” an “aggravated felon,” and a convict who had served 12-years for “conspiracy to distribute, and possession with intent to distribute, 5 kilograms or more of cocaine” (ibid.).  ICE also took the occasion of his death to tout its “extensive precautions” to limit the spread of COVID-19 and its spending on healthcare services for detainees (ibid.).  In addition, it committed to “a comprehensive, agency-wide review of this incident” (ibid).  According to ICE, by July 29, 2020, 141 detainees at Glades County Detention Center had contracted COVID-19 (ICE 2020b).

Perez-Montufa’s death followed the May 25th death of Santiago Baten-Oxlag, a 34-year old Guatemalan who died at the Piedmont Columbus Regional Hospital, in Columbus, Georgia, where he had been treated since April 17th (Montoya-Galvez 2020a). Prior to Baten-Oxlag’s hospitalization, ICE held him at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. ICE vowed to undertake “a comprehensive agency-wide review” of Baten-Oxlag’s death (ICE 2020k).  CoreCivic, a private prison corporation, administers the Stewart facility. According to ICE, by July 29, 2020, 149 detainees at Stewart Detention Center had contracted COVID-19 (ICE 2020b).

Baten-Oxlag’s death followed the May 6th death of Carlos Escobar-Mejia, a 57-year old El Salvadoran and 40-year US resident (Rivlin-Nadler 2020). Escobar-Mejia had suffered from hypertension and diabetes, resulting in an amputation. He died at Paradise Valley Hospital in National City, California, after being detained at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, which is also administered by CoreCivic.  According to ICE, by July 29, 2020, 166 detainees at Otay Mesa had contracted COVID-19 (ICE 2020b). ICE does not report on the number of hospitalized or gravely ill persons in its custody, but the deaths of these men from COVID-19 will certainly not be the last.

This report reviews US detention developments from March 1 to August 1, 2020, a period when COVID-19 established itself and spread through the sprawling US detention system and beyond it. The report – which CMS updated regularly during this period – documents ICE’s fatally flawed response to this crisis, paying particular attention to the role of the private corporations that largely operate this system. It explores how the pandemic exploited and exacerbated longstanding problems in this system, such as its privatization, prison-like facilities, correctional standards, lack of transparency, and perverse financial incentives.

Section I of the report details how the US immigrant detention system became a vector for the spread of the pandemic. Section II describes ICE’s resistance to releasing detainees at a pace and level commensurate with the need. Section III examines the effect of US border closures on asylum seekers, unaccompanied children, and survivors of trafficking. Section IV argues that large-scale release is not just a legal possibility, but a public health imperative. Section V documents how detention and pandemic response standards fail to protect detainees, detention facility staff, or the public. Section VI sets forth expert warnings regarding the spread of COVID-19 in the detention system. It also provides examples of more humane approaches to immigrant detainees in other countries. Section VII describes the desperate response of detainees and their families to this crisis. Section VIII offers a few overarching policy recommendations. As the pandemic continues to rage and the numbers of infected detainees and facilities with COVID-19 outbreaks continue to climb, it argues that the large-scale release of immigrant detainees remains an urgent priority.


Author Names

Donald Kerwin

Date of Publication August 12, 2020
DOI 10.14240/cmsesy051320


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