How US immigration policy spreads COVID-19 across the nation and world

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) has continued detaining and deporting immigrants during the pandemic. 

Facilities that house detainees are often without adequate safety measures. They’re often crowded and unsanitary. Three detainees are reported to have died of COVID-19, while thousands of others have been infected. In total, more than 40,000 people have been deported from the U.S. since the pandemic began.

A joint investigation by the New York Times and the Marshall Project found that the system of transporting deportees can spread COVID-19 around America, and back in the deportees’ home countries.

The investigation was conducted by a team of journalists, including Barbara Marcolini and Emily Kassie. 

KCRW: Can you describe how these private facilities are run, and how the system works? 

Emily Kassie: “The immigrant detention system is something that has really emerged over the last 40 years. .. Since the Reagan administration, it has just grown and ballooned over time, to the point where before the virus started, ICE was holding an average of 40,000 immigrant detainees a day for 2020. And these immigrants are not being punished for a crime. They are being held in what's called civil detention while they're awaiting immigration hearings. Some of these immigrants will stay in there for months to years at a time, while waiting to get [legal immigration] status. If they do not get status, they will be deported.”

What has been the situation with coronavirus in these facilities?

Kassie: “So when the coronavirus started, ICE was really late to take any sort of precautions. And these facilities have virtually no ability to create a social distancing-type of situation, because beds are within a couple feet of each other. We're talking about 30, 40, 50, up to 100 detainees in a dorm room with sometimes bunk beds, sometimes beds just right up next to each other. They were not getting masks, they were not getting sanitizer. So most of them have soap, which is often diluted to save money in many of these private facilities.

And then there's also the factor of the guards and the staff that work in these facilities, who were also able to bring in the virus unknowingly, and were also not provided masks and proper PPE for quite some time while the virus was spreading.”

What did detainees say?

Barbara Marcolini: “We spoke with detainees in the … detention centers across the U.S. One of them, an immigrant from Cuba, he described being in a bunk with 96 other people. Some of them had a fever, some of them were vomiting. And there were people mixed together, those who were sick with those who were not sick and were being exposed to the virus. They just expressed there were … no sanitary conditions in these detention centers, and it's almost impossible to keep social distance.”

Why is ICE moving these detainees to other places around the country?

Kassie: “ICE is moving detainees at their discretion for a couple reasons. One is to move them closer to centers where they can deport them from. ICE deports detainees from kind of these central hubs in Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. And so many detainees are moved from facilities all over the country ... to these detention centers to be deported. 

It also has the discretion to just move people around whenever it wants to. If it felt like the capacity at one facility had more room, and they needed to put new people into one facility, or if they had an outbreak of the virus at one facility, and they wanted to move those people all together, they could be doing that. So it's really at their discretion. But the main reason is usually to bring detainees closer to those deportation hubs.”

Detainees been spreading COVID-19 to other deportation hubs?

Kassie: “Many detainees we spoke to said that they were sick when they were put on these planes. They sat next to people who had already tested positive for COVID on these planes. So they're spreading to other facilities. Then you also have the flight staff on these planes who are also susceptible to getting sick. And so there can be community spread through the flights as well.”

No protective gear was given to the people working on these airplanes?

Marcolini: “No. We also interviewed some of the staff of Swift Air, the company that operates these flights. They said that they weren't given any masks or gloves until mid April. The detainees before these flights, they would just have their temperatures checked. Anyone who had a temperature above 99 degrees wouldn't board on the plane. But what these workers said was that the people who were coming in the buses, who were coming to the airport, they were sharing the same space than [sic] those who were sick before the flights. 

So even if someone who has a temperature over 99 degrees doesn't board the plane, they were still sharing the bus and the detention center with those who were boarding the planes and could possibly be infected as well.” 

Once detainees board a flight, they're usually sent to Mexico and Central American countries. What do these countries then do when the detainees land and some of them are sick?

Marcolini: “Some of the countries have been just telling their citizens once they land ... to go home and quarantine for 15 days. Other countries, because they were seeing this big influx of people who could be infected with the virus, they started creating these quarantine facilities. 

In El Salvador, for example, immigrants will land there, and they will stay at least a month in quarantine facilities that are basically just sports gymnasiums. Other countries like Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, they are not quarantining the deportees. They're just telling them to go home and self isolate for 14 days, which means that these deportees could potentially be spreading the virus in their communities once they go back home.”

Are any countries telling America to not send sick deportees and just wait until they’re healthier?

Kassie: “Yeah, so that's what's interesting, is this kind of geopolitical element of which some countries are taking deportees, and the Trump administration is praising them and sending them ventilators. And then you have a country like Guatemala who says, 'No, we don't want your sick deportees, stop sending them to us while they're still sick. It will spread the virus here.' And then you have the Trump administration threatening visa sanctions and cuts to humanitarian aid should they not accept these deportees. 

And so what we saw was that the Trump administration issued a memorandum in April threatening … visa sanctions. And Guatemala resumed their intake of deportation flights, and they continue to receive sick migrants. 

… As kind of the rest of the world really was shutting down, and all of these countries had restrictions on their borders for who can enter … ICE, despite some reduction in flights, is trying to continue business as usual and continue this policy of deporting people as quickly and efficiently as they can. That's why we were able to track over 200 of these deportation flights since Trump declared the national emergency. ICE confirmed with us [it] deported 40,000 migrants to 138 countries since the national emergency was declared.”

— Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Nihar Patel