The COVID-19 pandemic accounted for eight — about one-third — of those deaths, with the rest due to deteriorating conditions and inadequate health care in ICE facilities. But VIJ emphasized that its statistical analysis indicated ICE had almost certainly underreported deaths due to COVID-19 in its facilities by a factor perhaps as high as 15.
“There is no scenario in which the data ICE has reported to the public reflects the true scope of the spread of COVID-19 in detention,” the group’s report concluded.
In Texas, for example, ICE reported four deaths, but only one was attributed to the disease. Most were chalked up to “natural causes,” but without any reporting on whether the deceased had been tested for the coronavirus.
Three of 2020’s deaths occurred at just one facility — Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia.
“It raises lots of alarms when three people have died,” said Amilcar Valencia, the executive director of El Refugio Ministry, a nonprofit focused on Stewart detainees and their families, who added that the detention center is “putting at risk a lot of people.”
“Just by having people detained there,” she said, “all the population inside, all the workers, everyone in the county is at higher risk because we have this detention center in South Georgia.”
Civil rights advocates are concerned because the increase in deaths is not entirely due to an outbreak of the novel coronavirus. They point out that ICE has faced criticism over its routine medical care of detainees, which is the focus of an investigation after a whistleblower lodged complaints of gynecological procedures performed on detainees at Irwin County Detention Center without informed consent. The whistleblower was said to be a nurse at the same center.
ICE spokesperson Ryan Gustin said the agency is cooperating with authorities and takes the allegations seriously. He said they were concerned with any death that occurred within their facilities, but he stressed that such deaths are exceedingly rare.
“Statistically, fatalities occur at a small fraction of the national average for detained populations in federal and state custody — less than 1% of the rate at which fatalities occur in federal and state custody nationwide,” he said.
When considering the three deaths at Stewart Detention Center, he stressed that what needs to be taken into account is the fact that it is the largest of ICE detention facilities.
“We extend our heartfelt sympathy to the family and loved ones of those individuals that passed away,” he said, but stressed it was important “for context” to remember that the Stewart facility “cares for a higher number of people than most other immigration facilities in the country.”
“We have responded to this unprecedented situation appropriately, thoroughly and with care for the safety and well-being of those entrusted to us and our communities,” Gustin maintained.
Nonetheless, ICE facilities have been under Congressional investigation by the House Oversight Committee for reported widespread failures in medical care. Though the agency said this investigation was a “one-sided” review “done to tarnish” its reputation, immigrant advocates argue that the root problem with ICE care and custody lies in the system itself.
“We’re seeing the pandemic is playing a role,” said Detention Watch Network Executive Director Silky Shah, “but also the conditions of detention, and what it does both to your mental health and the really poor medical care that exists inside.”
The alarming rise in the death toll is also happening at the same time that overall population rates have been cut by more than half. At the onset of the pandemic, ICE released 900 detainees from custody in an effort to reduce crowding and slow the spread of COVID-19. The agency said it evaluated the records of those already in custody as well as those entering the system to determine their vulnerability to COVID-19, trying to balance that concern with the risk to the community if a particular detainee were released to await proceedings with their families.
ICE contends the population of its facilities has been decreased by 75%, dropping from 50,000 at the end of fiscal year 2019 to 20,000 a year later. VIJ reported that as of February 3, 2021, there had been 9,216 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in ICE facilities. The death toll per 100,000 people held in ICE facilities had also risen to its highest level in a dozen years.
“As we’re looking at this death toll going up, what it tells us is ... it’s a system that shouldn’t exist,” Shah added. “People should be with their loved ones, with their families, being able to social distance and quarantine at home (while) going through their immigration proceedings. They shouldn’t be locked up.”
Since the end of its last fiscal year, ICE has reported two more detainee deaths.
Anthony Jones, 51, of the Bahamas died on December 18, 2020, at Adams County Detention Center in Natchez, Mississippi. His death was attributed to a heart attack.
Felipe Montes, 56, of Mexico died on January 30, 2021, at a Georgia hospital after being transferred there from the Stewart Detention Center. Complications from COVID-19 were blamed for his death.
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