Despite high risks of infection and hundreds of sick detainees, there’s still no clear COVID-19 vaccination strategy from ICE officials, and few local health departments have stepped up to provide vaccines.
Immigration detention centers have been a hotbed of disease, putting at risk the 16,700 people currently in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody nationwide.
During the pandemic, ICE has reported more than 13,100 COVID-19 infections in facilities across the country — 4,600 in Texas. The state’s current infection rate among detainees is 44 times that of the general population, which is in part due to people being held in large groups in close proximity.
But despite those risks, which have led to several Coronavirus-related deaths in ICE detention facilities, there’s still no clear vaccine strategy from ICE officials.
When asked, ICE has repeatedly said it’s up to state and local governments to vaccinate people in their detention centers, and that a limited number of detainees have been vaccinated.
But critics like ACLU attorney Eunice Cho said that’s no replacement for a federal strategy.
“ICE had no plan whatsoever to secure vaccines or provide vaccines for people in custody in detention centers,” Cho said.
That’s in stark contrast to what’s happening inside U.S. prisons. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has administered more than 160,000 doses to people in their detention centers, using vaccines allocated by the federal government.
ICE, which didn’t receive vaccines from the federal government, hasn’t shared an exact number of how many of its detainees have gotten the vaccine.
In Texas, the Department of State Health Services has punted the responsibility to vaccinate detainees back to ICE, according to multiple inquiries to the department.
“It’s a federal responsibility to provide health care for people in federal custody,” a department spokesperson said in a written statement.
The agency later went on to say that it has never approved any vaccine transfer from county or city health departments to ICE facilities, but then corrected that statement after further inquiry.
In the clarified statement they said since March 14, the department has approved just two COVID-19 vaccine transfers from local health departments: 130 doses by the Houston Health Department to the Houston Processing Center in north Houston, and 500 doses to another unspecified facility.
There are 22 facilities in Texas with confirmed COVID-19 cases among immigrant detainees.
Cho said this “scattershot approach” is problematic.
“Depending on where people happen to be locked up in ICE detention will determine whether or not they have access to the vaccine,” Cho said.
Without clear guidance, local governments have been left in the dark. While the Houston facility has begun its program, another East Texas detention center in Polk County is dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak. County officials there have not allocated any vaccines for that population, and Courtney Comstock, coordinator for Polk County’s office of emergency management, said they had guidance from ICE to do so.
“That warden is welcome to reach out to this office and we’ll communicate their needs to our health district,” Comstock said. “But I have not heard anything from them as far as any needs.”
The for-profit prison company Management and Training Corp., which operates the Polk County ICE detention facility, confirmed none of its facilities in Texas have received COVID-19 vaccines for detainees, but a spokesperson said, “we have been working with the local health department to get access to the COVID vaccine for all detainees who choose to be vaccinated.”
Poor health standards inside ICE detention
ICE has taken steps to try to contain the virus, including releasing thousands of detainees. But its approach to providing vaccines is part of a pattern of poor health care inside detention facilities, which has proved deadly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
One Central American asylum seeker, “Pedro,” said that while inside a South Texas ICE detention center, he was held with “100 people, all of us together.” (Pedro’s attorney requested that Houston Public Media use a pseudonym and leave out some personal details, out of fear of ICE retaliation.)
Pedro stayed in an immigrant detention center for six months in South Texas and was released in mid-April after he was taken into custody for getting a DUI.
Pedro said he repeatedly had problems with the medical treatment he received inside, and went to the hospital multiple times.
“I had to put up with ear pain and pain from the gastritis,” Pedro said in Spanish.
He saw COVID-19 spread within that ICE facility and said during those six months, he wasn’t tested until he was released — nor did he receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
He said he would watch news reports of COVID-19 and feared getting sick while inside, as he waited to be released and reunited with his son who he had previously been separated from under Donald Trump’s family separation policy.
Another man, Jesús Rodríguez, was also detained recently at an ICE facility in Conroe, and said while inside he was offered a shot without specific details about what vaccine it was.
“They only mentioned that it was so you don’t get sick from the flu,” Rodríguez said in Spanish. “Something like that.”
He got that vaccine, but others refused, he said.
“Most of us there, the majority…said, ‘maybe it’s poison’ and there were many who didn’t get it,” Rodríguez said.
Other vaccination challenges
On top of the confusing approach to ICE vaccinations, advocates are also worried about vaccine uptake in these facilities, in part because of ICE’s reputation of poor medical treatment and lack of transparency.
“There’s going to be some percentage of the detained population that decides that they don’t trust ICE, and that’s from years of medical mistreatment that’s rearing its head,” said attorney Julie Pasch with Deportation Defense Houston.
Though she did say she’s optimistic about something she heard from one Houston client — that a COVID-19 vaccine orientation was held at the North Houston ICE detention center ahead of their vaccination program– she still has concerns.
Some of those concerns include how ICE officials will make sure people get a second dose, whether they’ll receive clear documentation and whether vaccines will be offered in the future to this fluctuating population that often has shorter stays in detention centers.
Attorney Eunice Cho said failures to vaccinate and protect ICE detainees during the pandemic underscores her belief that these facilities are ultimately unnecessary and should be shut down, since people are being held under civil violations, not criminal ones.
“This is a system that really shouldn’t exist in the first place and is not equipped to take care of people and protect them against dangers like COVID-19,” Cho said. “And what we’re seeing is ICE’s systematic failure to do so.”