First COVID death in ICE custody; advocates fear more to come

The Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in Batavia, NY.

After the first reported death from COVID-19 of a detainee in ICE custody in California, immigration advocates fear there will be many more.

Almost half of the detainees tested for COVID-19 in ICE detention centers in the U.S. have the potentially fatal virus — 705 positives out of 1,460 tests.

The 48-percent positive rate is well above the desired 10 percent rate recommended by the World Health Organization. Higher positive results could mean that only the most symptomatic people in a particular community are being tested, and others in that community could have the virus.

Advocates for detainees in the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in Batavia, NY, are especially worried. The center has the third-highest number of infected detainees in the country — 49 — according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement data as of May 6.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, and Rep. Brian Higgins, who represents the Buffalo area’s 26th Congressional district, have called for increased federal scrutiny of the Batavia facility. “Ensuring released detainees have proper shelter and support is important, especially during the ongoing public health emergency,” Rep. Higgins wrote in a letter to the directors of ICE and the Executive Office for Immigration Review.

The coronavirus has killed more than 73,000 people in the United States since February. A detainee in Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego died of COVID May 6 after being hospitalized for more than a week.

An ICE spokesman I talked with last week said some “medically vulnerable” detainees have been released from Batavia, but did not say how many. One detainee with chest pain was taken to an area hospital in late April, was tested for COVID-19 and brought back to detention. Those test results are pending.

The number of confirmed cases at Batavia has not changed in a week, according to ICE data. The center has a capacity of about 650, but reportedly is less than 70 percent full.

Justice for Migrant Families, a Buffalo-based immigrant advocacy group, has called for the release of detainees in Batavia.

Only Otay Mesa Detention Center (132) and Richwood Correctional Facility in Monroe, La. (64) have more infected detainees than Batavia, where undocumented immigrants arrested in Central New York are often detained.

ICE says no employees at Batavia have tested positive. Nationwide as of May 6, ICE says 39 employees at its detention centers have tested positive, as have 102 other ICE employees.

Published reports indicate detainees from Batavia have been transferred — by plane and by bus — to other ICE centers in the Southwest. ICE’s official rationale is the transfers provide more space for social distancing inside detention centers, but immigration advocates disagree.

Jennifer Connor, executive director of Justice for Migrant Families, told BuzzFeed News it is unconscionable for ICE to transfer people out of Batavia in the midst of the COVID pandemic.

“The only real answer to the public health disaster that is unfolding in detention is to conscientiously release people to their intended destinations where they can quarantine, heal, and recover in community-supported settings,” Connor told BuzzFeed.

Advocates point to national data compiled by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), showing most ICE detainees do not have a single criminal conviction. “In March 2020, in fact, more than six out of ten (61.2%) had no conviction, not even for a minor petty offense,” according to TRAC.

ICE says it makes custody determinations on a case-by-case basis, weighing a variety of factors including criminal record, community ties, flight risk and “whether he or she poses a potential threat to pubic safety.”

Nationwide, ICE says it has released 900 medically vulnerable detainees and has decreased its overall number of detainees by 7,000 since March 1, to slightly less than 30,000.

Semi-retired, thoroughly disgusted progressive grandfather.