As Coronavirus cases continue to surge across the United States, the International Rescue Committee raises the alarm on the public health risk posed by ongoing ICE detention of tens of thousands of people in the United States being held in unsanitary conditions - amidst suspect and potentially “superspreading” levels of COVID infection in ICE detention centers.

ICE currently reports 3,917 cases of COVID-19 (1) in its detention centers across the country since the start of the outbreak with approximately 1,000 positive cases currently in custody. Of particular concern are facilities like Immigration Centers of America - Farmville, which currently records 261 active cases of COVID with 289 total since the start of the outbreak; external inquiries indicate that a total of 359 detainees were tested at Farmville earlier in July, meaning the test positivity rate could be a shocking 80% or higher. Writ large, ICE reports 19,092 tests since February - amounting to a 20% average test positivity rate across all detention centers. This is nearly three times the current positivity rate across the US, still the country most affected by the virus globally. With an average of 660 tests per week since February for an average detained population in that period of approximately 60,000 (2), this results in about 11 tests conducted per thousand people- meaning ICE’s testing levels barely eke past WHO safety thresholds (3).

Philip* is an IRC client from Democratic Republic of Congo currently detained at a private ICE facility in Texas after being transferred from another Texan facility, where there have been 69 COVID cases to date (4). He recounted his experience in detention: “ICE does not respect any COVID public health measures - they don’t pay attention to the rules. Here I am in a room with over 100 people - like being in a crowded market. We are given soap and masks, but ICE agents do not wear masks, and do not respect quarantine - which is especially bad since we share so many spaces and materials. I have never seen them measure a single person’s temperature. At the last center they weren’t doing widespread testing, and if you were presumed sick you were simply removed and placed in another room, without testing the others. I saw people collapse in front of me and get dragged out - but ICE agents say this doesn’t happen. We ask ourselves where those people go - if they died, got deported or got transferred. They don’t tell us so we don’t panic. What they do say is that health isn’t ICE’s responsibility.” 

Olga Byrne, IRC’s Director of Immigration, said: “Locking up individuals seeking safety during the most infectious pandemic in 100 years is beyond inhumane. Public health experts universally agree that social distancing is one of the most important measures we can all take to combat the spread of COVID-19, something that is impossible in ICE’s detention facilities. We are hearing from clients released by ICE that they were detained in crowded rooms and unsanitary conditions, not being tested at all and being isolated according to the whims of ICE agents rather than any clear public health prerogatives. Already the Administration’s ‘wall’ of recent policies and practices has made accessing protection in the US nearly impossible, and asylum-seekers in ICE detention have limited to zero access to lawyers. Now, as the US deals with record-breaking spikes in COVID cases, the health of asylum-seekers and public health writ large is put directly at risk thanks to the irresponsible actions of ICE.”

There are also serious concerns on the reliability of ICE’s data on COVID cases in its detention centres. Not all detention centers are doing widespread testing, an alarming fact made worse by epidemiological modelling which suggests the number of COVID-19 cases could in fact be 15 times higher than what ICE discloses. 

All the more concerning are ICE’s ongoing deportation flights - with over 450 likely deportation flights since the beginning of the year to 15 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. 11 of these countries have confirmed deportees returned positive with COVID-19. Since mid-March alone, ICE has arranged 180 flights from detention centres in hotspot states (Texas, Arizona, California, and Florida) to the Northern Triangle and Mexico in particular. In this same time period, cases across the region jumped from a handful to thousands: in El Salvador, for instance, cases jumped from 0 to nearly 14,000, and in Guatemala, from 1 to over 40,000, undoubtedly exacerbated by ongoing deportations of COVID-positive deportees. 

Meghan Lopez, IRC’s Regional Director for Latin America, stated: “Central American countries have made good faith efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19, with explicit acknowledgement of the limited in-country resources to respond. Returning deportees to the countries from whence they fled, areas already in the chokehold of poverty, violence and now a pandemic, is irresponsible and dangerous both for the well-being of returnees and for global public health writ large. In countries that have made serious gains in supporting and integrating returnees and host communities, now these same groups face stigmatization or even retaliation out of fear of the virus because of the US’ poor handling - as we have seen for instance in the violent attacks against health workers in Mexico.”

Olga Byrne, IRC’s Director of Immigration, continued: "In light of the pandemic, the Department of Homeland Security should take immediate steps to release all individuals from ICE detention. Immigrant detention is justified only as a form of civil detention to ensure individuals show up to their hearings; given strong evidence on community-based alternatives, it is unjustified to continue placing noncitizens' health at risk by forcing them to remain in congested and unsanitary prison settings.  Releases should be supported with individuals having access to clear information on their rights and obligations regarding their ongoing legal proceedings, case management and health services (including testing) in a time of COVID, relying on community-based alternatives and sheltering at home to avoid furthering the spread. The IRC endorses the Immigration Enforcement Moratorium Act, a bill introduced in both chambers of the U.S. Congress earlier this week - which also halts arrests and detention of asylum-seekers and other noncitizens altogether in the US by ICE and CBP. Furthermore, the Administration must immediately halt all deportations while a public health emergency is ongoing - lest these deportations accelerate the spread of the virus to countries with fragile healthcare systems equally in the throes of this atrocious pandemic.”

***For a data visualization of the deportation flights and rising COVID-19 cases, please go HERE. For a higher quality version of this graphic and/or for the raw data, please email: [email protected].


(1) Data as of July 31

(2) Average of current detained population of 21,884 and the 38,065 reported detained at end of March given approximate 55-day stay on average

(3) WHO recommends at least 1 test per 1000 people per week for a reliable positivity rate calculation

(4) Name changed for confidentiality. Philip was ordered removed in 2012 but the U.S. government has been unable to remove him to the DRC. Prior to his re-detention in October 2019, Philip complied with all ICE-mandated check-ins while he lived in Texas. The only reason he was re-detained by ICE in October was the promise of imminent removal to his home country. Unable to remove him to the DRC for nearly 10 months, ICE continues to detain Philip indefinitely without cause and has even denied his release on parole pursuant to Fraihat v. ICE, of which he is a class member due to health complications that put him at further risk of contracting COVID-19 while in detention.