An immigrant being held at a facility in New Jersey has become the first Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainee to test positive for the coronavirus in the US, an agency official confirmed.
The 31-year-old Mexican detainee has been held at the Bergen County Jail, where last week local officials reported that a correctional officer at the facility had also tested positive. ICE officials told congressional staffers that the detainee had been quarantined and that intakes at the facility were suspended.
Immigrant advocates, medical experts, and former senior Department of Homeland Security officials have called for ICE to release detainees who are most at risk, like the elderly or those with compromised immune systems. ICE officials have said they are constantly monitoring detainees and staying in close touch with medical experts on the potential spread of the disease in detention facilities.
"The individual was sent out for medical evaluation at Hackensack-Meridian Health University Medical Center after displaying symptoms on Monday and declared presumptive positive by their rapid response test later that evening," the Bergen County Sheriff's Office said in a statement. "The test will be sent to the Center for Disease Control for confirmation."
The jail has been placed under a "lockdown protocol," which includes limitations on the movements of detainees at the facility, including county inmates.
ICE has come under fire in recent months for issues related to medical care provided within its detention centers. In December, the House Oversight and Reform Committee announced it had opened an investigation into the medical care of detainees in the wake of a BuzzFeed News story that revealed a series of allegations of substandard care from a whistleblower. BuzzFeed News first reported the memo and documented its reports of detainees being given incorrect medication and suffering from delays in treatment of withdrawal symptoms.
In March, BuzzFeed News reported on a 2019 DHS memo outlining issues with a detention center in New Mexico. The internal email detailed how immigrants were exposed to poor sanitation and quarantine practices during an outbreak of chicken pox and mumps. Investigators also said they saw immigrants housed in an area that was not “appropriately cleaned and sanitized,” potentially contributing to the spread of infectious diseases.
Immigrants in custody have reportedly been finding out about the coronavirus pandemic through news reports and family members, according to Keren Zwick, litigation director for the National Immigrant Justice Center. The group’s clients have reported a lack of easy access to soap, hand sanitizer, and cleaning supplies. Other ICE detainees have described seeing people sick with flulike symptoms enter the facilities.
On March 6, the Bronx Defenders, a public defender nonprofit, sent a letter to the Bergen County Jail pushing for more information on how clients with underlying medical issues would be treated and calling for the release of ICE detainees from the facility. The group represents more than two dozen ICE detainees currently at the facility.
"It is inexcusable that ICE has taken no measures to release people from local jails within the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States,” said Sophia Gurulé, immigration policy counsel at the Bronx Defenders. “Elected officials from New York’s city, state and federal government have unequivocally called for ICE to take steps, including release, to mitigate against this crisis on their hands but the agency has been unmoved. ICE needs to immediately release people from its facilities in the tri-state area."
There are more than 37,000 ICE detainees in private and local jails across the US. The agency relies on a variety of methods to provide medical care. In some facilities, ICE provides it directly; in others, the agency has a few employees assist private or public contractors. In many facilities, a contractor provides care.
“Learning of the pandemic through the television and correspondence with family and friends on the outside, but without reliable information or training on precautionary measures from staff, leaves our clients in detention with more questions than answers as to how to protect themselves and others,” Zwick wrote in a statement describing the reports from detainees. “One of the men detained at the Jerome Combs who learned of the virus through the news explained that ‘everyone is anxious’ because they have been watching the news and seeing recommendations that people not cluster in groups of 10 or more people, which is impossible at that facility because it houses 48 people per block.”
On Monday, an ICE official told BuzzFeed News that a guard at the Montgomery Processing Center in Conroe, Texas — which houses ICE detainees — had tested positive for the coronavirus. The facility is run by Geo Group, a private prison company.
"On March 23rd, we received notification from a testing center in Harris County, Texas, that an employee at the Montgomery Processing Center has tested positive for COVID-19 (Coronavirus)," a GEO Group spokesperson said in a statement. "This employee has been self-quarantining at home since March 18th and has shown signs of improved health. Three additional employees have been advised to self-quarantine at home. Additionally, one detainee has been isolated from the general population in the medical area at the facility."
Family members of ICE detainees have grown worried in recent days about the potential spread of the virus within jails, including at the Montgomery Processing Center.
“I’m scared to get a phone call saying about my dad,” said Maria Vazquez, a 31-year-old US citizen whose 58-year-old father has been in custody at the Texas detention center for several weeks. “I know he has health issues. The virus could hurt him. He is more vulnerable.”
Her father, Roman Vazquez, was recently taken to the hospital from the facility and diagnosed with pneumonia, she said. Vazquez, who has underlying pulmonary issues, has reported to his daughters that he is short of breath and being kept isolated in the detention center’s medical unit.
“I am scared,” Maria said. Her children, she added, have asked in recent days when their grandfather was coming home. “They miss him.”
Roman Vazquez is a green card holder who had been detained by DHS officials after arriving from a trip abroad, according to his attorney, Armand Jawanmardi. ICE officials have cited a years-old assault conviction as a basis to revoke his permanent residency, detain him for the time being, and deport him from the country, he said.
“He is very sick,” Jawanmardi said.