Nearly 75% of detainees in US Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in a Virginia facility have contracted Covid-19, raising alarm among immigration lawyers and advocates who repeatedly warned of deteriorating conditions.
Nearly a month ago, there were 49 cases at the ICE detention center in Farmville, Virginia, which holds adult males. Now, of the 360 immigrants in custody at the center, there are 268 confirmed cases of coronavirus currently under isolation or monitoring, according to agency statistics.
“We’re just stuck in here. We can’t do anything about it,” said a 39-year-old detainee who agreed to share his experience on condition CNN not use his name.
“Some people are worried, sad, because they worry about their families, they worry about being deported,” said the detainee, who tested positive for coronavirus in early July.
Nationwide, immigration detention facilities holding more than 22,000 people continue to reckon with the spread of coronavirus months into the pandemic. While ICE committed to releasing immigrants considered most vulnerable and reducing its population, the virus has continued to rapidly spread across facilities, stoking fear among those in custody.
“A humanitarian crisis is rapidly unfolding at Farmville Detention Center,” reads a complaint in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia filed Tuesday by the National Immigration Project, Legal Aid Justice Center and Gibson Dunn.
Since the coronavirus outbreak, the number of confirmed cases in custody has gradually increased. A government watchdog report released in June underscored the dramatic spike in cases among detainees in custody since the coronavirus outbreak, starting with one case on March 25 and increasing to 1,312 on May 26.
In total, there have been 3,736 confirmed Covid-19 cases in ICE custody, according to agency statistics. More than 16,000 detainees have been tested as of July 17.
At Farmville, lawyers attribute the rise in cases to an agency effort to transfer detainees to provide for social distancing.
In early June, 74 detainees were transferred to the Farmville center from facilities in Arizona and Florida and quarantined. They were eventually tested after three detainees had confirmed cases.
Of the 74 detainees transferred, 51 eventually tested positive for coronavirus. Up until then, the center had few to no cases.
Prior to the transfer, the director of the Farmville facility, Jeffrey Crawford, relayed concerns from the center’s medical director to ICE about new intakes into the facility, according to a court filing obtained by CNN.
ICE, according to the filing, proposed quarantining any new intakes at another Virginia location for 14 days before transferring them to Farmville. But that wasn’t possible for the transfers coming from facilities in Arizona and Florida. Lawyers say that’s where the problem began.
“In June, when this started to happen and reports started coming out that people were sick with Covid … what they originally said is this is just the transfers,” said Sirine Shebaya, executive director of the National Immigration Project. “And then eventually they started testing and realized ‘oh, it’s everywhere.’”
Crawford maintained that “none of the 74 detainees were exposed to the general population” and detailed precautionary measures put in place to stem the spread of the virus, according to the court filing.
But detainees said that despite measures to separate those with confirmed cases, there continued to be intermingling, particularly with the staff members attending those who are separated and then engaging with the general population.
In a statement to CNN, ICE said it’s “ramped up its efforts to protect and care for detainees in its custody by providing face masks, procuring additional handwashing stations and most recently, administering comprehensive testing of all detainees.”
“The majority of those who tested positive are asymptomatic, but are being closely monitored and receiving appropriate medical care,” ICE said, adding that medical checks are done twice daily, including a temperature screening and medication disbursement. “Detainees who have tested negative will be retested and are being held separately from positive detainees”
But that’s still done little to quell the concerns of detainees in the facility.
“People are still scared,” said Brian Casson, an immigration attorney representing two detainees at the Farmville facility. “The people who don’t have results back are worried they’re going to get it or have it. I haven’t had any clients test negative. I just had one client who tested inconclusive.”
ICE said it doesn’t deliberately move detainees who have tested positive for coronavirus between its detention facilities, but conceded there “have been some instances where positive cases have been transported by ICE.”
The Department of Homeland Security inspector general found in a June report that while “almost all facility personnel” across a slew of centers said they were prepared to address the virus, they still “expressed concerns if the pandemic continued to spread.”
The inspector general similarly found issues related to social distancing, stating in the report that “facilities reported concerns with their inability to practice social distancing among detainees, and to isolate or quarantine individuals who may be infected with COVID-19.”
Concerns over conditions have prompted a litany of lawsuits nationwide to release detainees and put measures in place to protect those in custody.
Shebaya is involved in three lawsuits relating to Farmville, calling for release of some detainees and challenging conditions at the detention center.
“At this point we’re trying to figure out what we can do to make this better for people in the inside,” Shebaya said.