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Deaths & Disease Rise in ICE Custody in Southern California

Photo credit: Milad B. Fakurian

Entry into the US does not have any guarantee of safety or security for migrants. Last week, it was reported that the number of deaths in ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) custody this fiscal year are the highest they have been in fifteen years. Given the situation with COVID-19, which has killed over 215,000 people in the USA alone, a rise in deaths is tragically, perhaps not unexpected. But, with recent reports of neglect and abuse in ICE facilities, and even possible forced sterilisation, it could be that this rise in deaths is evidence of something else.

In a report released on September 21st by the House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, several issues were revealed. For instance, the report shows, that detained people in ICE facilities have insufficient medical or mental health care and many experience difficulty accessing legal support or case information, as is their right. Alarmingly, the report shows some ICE staff have shown a dismissive or even cavalier attitude to the health and security of people in their care. Even to the point of downplaying the seriousness of suicide attempts.

Given this negligence, it is unsurprising that more than 5,000 detainees have tested positive for COVID-19 across six fatalities (as of the time the report was published). The report details that not only are detainees not given suitable hygiene and cleaning products, but even ICE employees and contractors aren’t given sufficient PPE to protect themselves or others in facilities. In some facilities, such as California’s Adelanto processing facility in San Bernardino County, rates of COVID-19 infection are as high as 20%.

Some facilities, designed as prisons, have locked COVID-19 infected people in solitary confinement. This is deeply disturbing given the extensive body of literature which has detailed the severe mental health impact solitary confinement can have on prisoners.

These failures were further illustrated in an additional report by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) about the Otay Mesa Detention Center near San Diego, California.

This facility was hit hard by COVID-19, with officially 169 detainees being diagnosed with the virus. Though this isn’t counting the additional 69 detainees in Otay Mesa held by the US Marshal Service, and those who have not been diagnosed (which, according to the report, might be a large number). If this is the case, the situation in Otay Mesa may present a genuine health risk not only to those detained but all those in the surrounding area.

What is worse, is that the tensions around COVID-19 may have been what led to further violence and abuse in ICE custody. According to the report, on April 10th, several women in ICE detention were pepper-sprayed for simply questioning the need to sign a waiver for PPE.

f this dangerously relaxed attitude towards the safety, health, and security of ICE detainees continues, a rise in deaths is likely to follow.

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