ICE keeps transferring detainees around the country, leading to COVID-19 outbreaks

Detainee transfers have led to COVID-19 outbreaks in facilities in at least 5 states. Despite limited testing, over 1,400 detainees have tested positive.
ICE Dallas office opening its newest detention facility in West Texas
Bluebonnet Detention Center, ICE's newest detention facility in West Texas.Charles Reed / U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

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By Lisa Riordan Seville and Hannah Rappleye

The immigrants began to show symptoms in late April, about a week after arriving at the Rolling Plains Detention Center in Haskell, Texas.

They had been held in dorms with other recent transfers, according to a county official. First three detainees tested positive for COVID-19. Then 20 more. As of Friday, 41 immigrants detained at Rolling Plains had been infected. Just three county residents have tested positive.

In Pearsall, Texas, 350 miles south, transfers turned another detention center into a virus hotspot. Frio County had just a single confirmed case of COVID-19 in early April. Then two detainees who had recently been moved to Pearsall's South Texas ICE Processing Facility tested positive, ICE told county officials. Thirty-two immigrants have now been diagnosed, almost 90 percent of the state's official COVID-19 tally in Frio County.

"Our vulnerability is absolutely that detention center," said Frio County Commissioner Jose Asuncion. "Once that facility is exposed, the employees are coming in and out, there's no way to contain it."

In the past several months, while most Americans have been ordered to shelter at home, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has shuffled hundreds of people in its custody around the country. Immigrants have been transferred from California to Florida, Florida to New Mexico, Arizona to Washington State, Pennsylvania to Texas.

These transfers, which ICE says were sometimes done to curb the spread of coronavirus, have led to outbreaks in facilities in Texas, Ohio, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana, according to attorneys, news reports and ICE declarations filed in federal courts.

ICE's actions have prompted an outcry from Democratic senators, who on Friday said the transfers had spread the virus and demanded Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf bring them to a halt.

"Until ICE halts transfers and expands testing, the agency will continue to exacerbate conditions for individuals in ICE custody and for all the communities surrounding its facilities," reads the letter signed by 18 senators.

Since ICE announced its first case in March, COVID-19 has surfaced in at least 55 of the roughly 200 facilities that ICE uses. More than 1,400 detainees have been infected, roughly half of all those tested, ICE data show. Two immigrants and three staffers have died.

ICE declined to provide information on how many transfers have occurred throughout the pandemic. But NBC News identified nearly 80 since the pandemic was declared, and that is not a complete accounting. The analysis includes moves between immigration detention facilities as well as from criminal to ICE custody. Individual detainees are often moved several times prior to deportation.

Betsy Mejia and her husband Oscar Mejia. Oscar Meija has been detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Bluebonnet Detention Center in Anson, Texas, since February.Courtesy Betsy Mejia

ICE has a protocol for transfers. Detainees are medically screened and cleared for travel, issued a mask, and in some cases, have their temperatures taken, according to court filings and ICE statements. But it does not routinely test prior to moving detainees from one place to the next.

An attorney representing ICE told a federal court in Florida that it only tests immigrants who display symptoms of COVID-19, the Miami Herald reported. ICE told NBC News in a statement that it tests some, but not all, immigrants before they are placed on planes and deported.

Without widespread testing and contact tracing, it is difficult to identify the source of infections inside ICE facilities. At several, employees have been the first to test positive, ICE data shows. But advocates, along with several federal judges overseeing lawsuits against the agency, have voiced concern that transfers are threatening immigrants' lives and contributing to the virus' spread.

"Transfers are ongoing, numerous, frequent and appear to be spreading COVID-19 from one place to another," said Jessica Schneider, director of the detention program at the nonprofit Americans for Immigrant Justice in Miami, one of several groups that has filed a lawsuit on behalf of detainees in South Florida. "The folks that are detained are sitting ducks."

'Someone has died'

Even before the first ICE detainee was diagnosed with COVID-19, more than 4,000 doctors signed a letter warning ICE an "outbreak of COVID-19 in immigration detention facilities would be devastating."

It is difficult, if not impossible, to social distance in detention, doctors and corrections experts said. ICE detention is civil, and not supposed to be punitive. But detention centers share many traits with prisons. Men, women and children sleep, eat and watch television in close quarters, often in open dorms with beds and chairs bolted close together. Their movements, along with access to sanitary supplies, are tightly controlled.

Like nursing homes and meatpacking plants, prisons across the county have proven coronavirus hotspots. When state and federal prison officials in Ohio, Louisiana and California conducted mass testing, hundreds of prisoners came back positive. Most had no symptoms. The federal Bureau of Prisons, which decreased movement of prisoners 90 percent during the pandemic, announced earlier this month it would begin to phase transfers back in. Given the risks, it will conduct "aggressive testing" before and after transfers.

ICE's largest outbreak is currently at Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, Calif., where nearly 160 people have tested positive. Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, 57, was held at Otay before his death on May 7, the first from COVID-19 in ICE custody. On Sunday, Santiago Baten-Oxlaj, a 34-year-old held in a Georgia facility, became the second person detained by ICE to die of the virus.

Photograph submitted by CoreCivic/Warden of Otay Mesa as an attachment in federal court documents.

"We've been saying since this started that if the government didn't act quickly, people were going to die," said Monika Langarica, a staff attorney with the ACLU of San Diego, which has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of detainees at Otay Mesa. "We know that's not hyperbole. Someone has died."

But within its archipelago of detention centers, which includes county jails and privately operated facilities, ICE routinely tests only those who show symptoms. It also does not test all people before deportation, a spokesperson confirmed. Some governments abroad have demanded tests after people deported to Guatemala, Mexico and Haiti were found to have COVID-19.

If half of detainees tested come back positive, ICE isn't testing enough, said Dr. Anjali Niyogi, associate professor at Tulane School of Medicine, a public health expert who has been treating coronavirus cases in New Orleans. The more than 1,400 positive cases within ICE, she added, are "absolutely an undercount."

Doctors and attorneys around the country have argued ICE's best method to stop the spread of disease is to release detainees, particularly those with medical issues. Lawyers and advocacy groups have filed lawsuits nationwide in an attempt to force releases. They argue that because immigration detention is civil, the agency has wide discretion in who it detains. Former ICE officials have backed that claim.

ICE has voluntarily released more than 900 people as part of its own review of which detainees are medically vulnerable, a spokesman said, and several hundred more after court orders. Along with a drop in enforcement due to COVID-19, the number of people in immigrant detention has fallen to under 26,000, its lowest level during the Trump administration.

Photograph submitted by CoreCivic/Warden of Otay Mesa as an attachment in federal court documents.

The agency has taken "important steps" to keep immigrants and staff safe since the outbreak of COVID-19, a spokesperson said, including medically screening incoming detainees, providing protective equipment and disinfecting facilities. It has also implemented safety measures for transfers. Those with COVID-19 are grouped together, or "cohorted," the spokesperson said, and new admissions are isolated for two weeks before moving into general population.

But every exit and entrance into a detention center increases the risk the virus will spread. ICE Assistant Field Office Director Alan Greenbaum acknowledged the dangers transfers pose in a declaration to a federal court in Massachusetts. He argued ICE should be able to move people from criminal to ICE custody within the same Bristol County facility, which the court had temporarily barred.

Transferring detainees to a new facility, he wrote, "creates a greater risk of detainees being exposed to, or exposing others to, COVID-19."

Read the court document here.

While ICE asserts it has the right to move detainees at any time, for virtually any reason, the agency said transfers are "part of the agency's extensive efforts to stem the potential spread of COVID-19," including to facilitate social distancing. In some cases, that has backfired.

People looked 'very sick'

In early March, just as the coronavirus was beginning to surface on the coasts, ICE arrested K. at his home in Philadelphia. According to his lawyer, Lilah Thompson, the agency asserts a past criminal conviction made K., a legal permanent resident, deportable. (K.'s name is being withheld for fear of retaliation).

K. was taken to Pike County Correctional Facility in Hawley, Penn. Several men held there had tested positive for COVID-19. After showing symptoms, K. was also tested. He had the flu, but not COVID-19. He was recovering when he was woken up before dawn on April 11 to be transferred. Thompson didn't know where he was until ICE notified her K.'s case had been moved to Texas.

K. was among more than 70 people taken from two facilities with outbreaks in the Northeast and moved to the Prairieland Detention Center in Alvarado, Texas, according to interviews with attorneys and a federal lawsuit filed earlier this month. The move was first reported by the Dallas Morning News.

They were loaded onto buses, taken to the airport, and flown to Dallas in shackles, according to the lawsuit and interviews with attorneys. Then another bus delivered them to Prairieland.

Days before, about 50 men detained at the Bluebonnet Detention Center in Jones County, Texas, were also transferred to Prairieland, according to an affidavit in the lawsuit.

"We were all squished together and there were people on the bus who looked very sick," a detainee stated in an affidavit. "There were a few people coughing a lot on the way."

No one wore masks, he added, and because everyone on the bus was cuffed, "they could not cover their mouths."

A few days after K. arrived at Prairieland, officers moved him from the dorm into isolation, Thompson said. When they tested K. again, he had COVID-19.

Prairieland had no confirmed cases before the transfers from the Northeast and Bluebonnet, ICE records show. A week later it had three. By May 1, there were 41.

"They put people on buses and planes without proper protection," said Thompson, an attorney with the Nationalities Service Center in Philadelphia. "It shows a disregard for immigrants' lives, and a disregard for their rights."

In at least one case, ICE knowingly transferred a detainee with COVID-19.

In late April, an ICE official submitted a declaration to a federal court in Louisiana that one person who tested positive at the Catahoula Detention Center in Harrisonburg, La., had been transferred to the Richwood Correctional Center, 70 miles away in Monroe.

Richwood had 29 confirmed cases at the time. "Many of these positive cases were transferred from other facilities to Richwood," the official told the court.

That same week, the Associated Press reported, prison officials told employees they'd be required to work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, due to staff shortages caused by a "high number of positive COVID 19 staff cases." About a week later, two Richwood guards died from COVID-19.

Positive cases there have climbed to 65.

Stories like that concern Rep. Jason Crow, D.-Colo. The weekly reports he gets about the Aurora Contract Detention Facility, outside of Denver, show hundreds of detainees have transferred in and out since the pandemic began.

"These aren't people coming from the border or picked up," said Crow, whose district includes Aurora. "These are people being moved around."

Crow began tracking disease at Aurora last year, when a mumps outbreak swept through nearly 60 detention facilities, infecting more than 900 immigrants.

In a letter to ICE early this month, Rep. Crow expressed concern that transfers could introduce the disease to facilities and surrounding communities, pointing to the admission of a detainee from the Sterling Correctional Facility, a state prison that then had the largest single COVID-19 outbreak in Colorado.

Last week, Aurora diagnosed its first cases of coronavirus among detainees, though several guards have been infected. One of the two men with COVID-19 had recently transferred from Sterling, according to his attorney, Henry Hollithron. Oscar Perez Aguirre, 57, arrived with a fever. After his health quickly deteriorated, said Hollithron, he was hospitalized. Aurora now has five cases.

GEO Group, the private prison company that runs Aurora, said it has been making every effort to keep both employees and detainees safe.

"Our utmost priority has always been the health and safety of all those in our care and our employees," a spokesperson said, adding the GEO Group has no role in the decisions of who ICE transfers or releases.

Federal courts have begun to question ICE about how its transfer practices may be putting detainees at risk.

On May 21, a court in South Florida requested that ICE disclose whether "transfers have been known to result in an increase in COVID-19 cases." ICE asserted they have not.

This came after the agency moved 33 detainees from the Krome Detention Facility in Florida to a nearby lockup in Broward County. Following the transfer, 16 detainees tested positive for the virus, as first reported by the Miami Herald, driving the number of cases at Broward from three to 19, according to ICE statistics.

ICE told the court that it has broad discretion under the law to relocate detainees as needed. The agency regularly transfers people due to risk level, where it has bed space, for medical reasons or to deport them, the agency said, adding that it does not transfer or deport those with symptoms, who are waiting for test results, or who are suspected to have COVID-19, unless medically necessary.

The detainees who were moved to Broward were cleared before leaving, ICE told the court, and were put into a 14-day quarantine.

Because they have been cohorted, the agency said, "ICE does not believe that the transfer has resulted in an increase in COVID-19 cases at" Broward.

Read the court document here.

A federal court in Louisiana has publicly questioned the agency's accounting of cases, particularly with regard to transfers. In response to another lawsuit seeking to free immigrants there, ICE stated in a sworn affidavit that as of the afternoon of May 18, there were "no known cases" at the LaSalle ICE Processing Center in Jena, La. Days before, the agency reported 15.

In an order that led to the release of 14 detainees, the judges described ICE's approach to transfers as an outlier.

"We can only speculate that some of these detainees were moved to other facilities as it is well known that ICE has continued operations and not followed the lead of the Bureau of Prisons and Louisiana Department of Corrections, both of whom have largely precluded the movement of their inmates," the court wrote.

'They're not doing anything right'

Those held inside the nation's immigrant detention facilities could see coronavirus coming, but could do little to stop it.

From inside his dorm at the Bluebonnet Detention Center in Anson, Texas, Oscar Mejia watched the new detainees arrive through April. He and those who slept on the bunks arranged in close rows worried that soon enough, the virus would make its way in, too.

"They've brought new people from other places — from Dallas, from all over," Mejia said in a phone call from the facility, where he has been since February. "Those are people who are coming, they might not be well."

Betsy Mejia speaks to her husband Oscar Mejia in the Bluebonnet detention center over video call.Courtesy Betsy Mejia

At least 200 people were transferred to Bluebonnet since mid-March, according to news reports and numbers provided by Management and Training Corporation (MTC), the private company that runs Bluebonnet. Whether the coronavirus was carried in by one of them, or the six officers who have tested positive, Mejia couldn't say.

But beginning in April, he and others in his dorm developed fevers and coughs. Treatment, he said, consisted of Tylenol, allergy pills and salt to gargle with.

"We told them there was corona but they didn't do tests," said Mejia.

That mirrors the account in a YouTube video posted on April 29 that shows a group of men pleading for help from a facility they say is Bluebonnet.

"We've been telling them we're sick, they're not doing anything right," a man in the video said. "All they're doing is giving us Tylenol."

NBC News could not verify the source of the video, but the detainees' uniforms, the ceiling of the dorm, and the dates mentioned in it correspond to verified information and images.

Mejia said he was finally tested for COVID-19 in mid-May. He came back positive, along with 131 other men at Bluebonnet, roughly a quarter of those held there.

The rural West Texas facility now has the second-largest outbreak of any ICE facility in the country, ICE data shows.

Both ICE and MTC told NBC News allegations they have not taken proper precautions are false.

"The health and safety of our staff and the men and women in our care is our top priority," a spokesperson said in a statement, adding that MTC is "strictly following" CDC guidelines and testing anyone who displays COVID-19 symptoms.

As similar stories have emerged nationwide, Washington has begun to respond. The Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General recently opened an investigation into whether ICE adequately safeguarded detainees and staff from COVID-19. On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary will hold a hearing to examine best practices for incarceration and detention during the pandemic.

Meija's wife, Betsy, said she's tried for months to get help for the men at Bluebonnet. She posted on Facebook. She called the warden in Anson and the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. From their home in Kilgore, Texas — more than 300 miles from Bluebonnet — she's not sure what more she can do.

"I'm fighting a losing battle," she said.

Julia Ainsley contributed.