Health professionals protest outside of an ICE facility on May 1, 2020 in Pompano Beach, Florida.

Opinion: ICE Is Leaving Detainees at the Mercy of Covid-19. It’s Inhumane.

At a Georgia detention center plagued by outbreaks, the pleas of medically vulnerable immigrants are being ignored.

Roughly 150 miles south of Atlanta, in rural Stewart County, sits Stewart Detention Center, one of more than a hundred facilities that holds detained immigrants seeking asylum or awaiting deportation hearings. SDC, which is a privately operated facility under contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has a dismal reputation among people who’ve been held there. Detained individuals have reported the facility has let serious medical issues go untended, imposed significant barriers to contacting legal counsel, served food that “looks like vomit” and meals that contained maggots, and has held detainees in solitary confinement with little justification. While ICE facilities are meant to be short-term, people can be detained at SDC for months or even years.

So it is disturbing, but not surprising, that SDC has become a hotspot for Covid-19. Since the pandemic’s outset, the facility — which has an official capacity of about 1,750 — has recorded more than 1,000 cases of Covid-19. Four detainees at SDC have died from complications related to the disease, the most deaths of any ICE facility. It is largely because of SDC that Stewart County has the second highest per capita rate of Covid-19 cases of all Georgia counties.

As medical experts who have reviewed numerous records of individuals at SDC, we find it unconscionable that, despite the urging of medical professionals, the facility has refused to release people who have hypertension, diabetes, asthma, and other conditions that put them at high risk of hospitalization or death from Covid-19. In doing so, the center flouted a 2020 U.S. District Court ruling that, among other things, required facilities to establish “the minimum acceptable” conditions to reduce risk for medically vulnerable detainees, and make timely determinations regarding those detainees’ release. (That preliminary ruling was reversed last month, though the plaintiffs in the case could file an appeal.) Despite the inaction of SDC and, more broadly, ICE, it has become abundantly clear that the benefits of releasing individuals — and allowing them to await hearings in the safety of a home environment — would far outweigh any risks.

Although ICE’s Covid-19 response has been disappointing across the board, SDC has proven particularly ill-equipped to house medically vulnerable individuals. Detainees have complained of being exposed to the virus, and of staff not wearing masks consistently. To make matters worse, medical records that we have reviewed demonstrate that the facility has failed to test, appropriately isolate, and monitor individuals exhibiting Covid-19 symptoms, and it has generally neglected to follow CDC recommendations for detention facilities. (CoreCivic, the company that operates SDC, maintains that it has followed guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention since the onset of the pandemic. In an email to Undark, Ryan Gustin, CoreCivic’s director of public affairs, wrote that, even prior to the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in its facilities, “we have rigorously followed the guidance of local, state, and federal health authorities, as well as our government partners.”)

This pattern of medical neglect is not isolated to SDC. Independent investigations by human rights organizations have repeatedly shown that ICE detention facilities are high-risk settings for Covid-19 transmission. Despite this, many facilities have operated in violation of social distancing guidelines, and detained individuals have been transferred numerous times between facilities, despite the risk of pathogenic spread. Since the onset of the pandemic, there have been more than 29,000 cases of confirmed Covid-19 infections in ICE detention centers — and even that figure is likely an undercount, as asymptomatic individuals are not necessarily tested regularly and ICE’s public data can be incomplete and subject to delays. A study published last year found that the mean rate of positive Covid-19 cases in detention facilities was as much as 13 times higher, per capita, than in the general U.S. population.

Four detainees at SDC have died from complications related to the disease, the most deaths of any ICE facility.

Despite the evidenced efficacy of vaccination, ICE continues to lag behind on immunizing detained individuals. As a result, it is unclear which facilities offer vaccines, how many doses they have, who is being offered doses, and what percentage of individuals detained and employees have been vaccinated. Still, there’s reason to believe that vaccination rates at centers like SDC are probably lower than they could be: Through our work with detainees and their legal teams, we have heard individuals detained at SDC lack adequate access to information about the vaccines, do not have confidence in the facility’s ability to provide post-vaccination monitoring and care, and have a general lack of trust in the detention center’s ability to deliver medical care.

In light of all this, a coalition of medical, legal, and immigration advocacy groups — including the Georgia Human Rights Clinic, which we co-direct — filed a civil rights and civil liberties complaint petitioning federal officials to release medically vulnerable individuals detained at SDC. The complaint also highlights that the individuals who have been denied release are disproportionately Black, a reflection of the systemic racism ingrained in the U.S. immigration system.

Simply put, there is no good reason not to let medically vulnerable individuals await their hearings at home. Releasing a detained person to their U.S.-based family or sponsor — and pairing them with case managers and social services while they await a hearing — can be as effective as detention at ensuring follow-up in court. And, per adult, it costs the government just a sliver of what it would cost for detention. This option would not only help curb transmission of disease but also follow a rights-based approach and ultimately provide individuals with social support, thereby improving physical and mental health and keeping families together.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a crucial reminder that we must advocate for the dignified treatment of all individuals, regardless of legal status. Most of all, we need to ask ourselves why we detain people at all, when there are safer, more humane, and more cost-effective alternatives. As Covid-19 continues to rapidly spread through detention centers, it is more important now than ever to pursue solutions that prioritize the health and safety of all individuals and preserve their basic human rights. 

Harrison Goodall is a medical student at Emory University School of Medicine, co-president of the Georgia Human Rights Clinic, and a student member of Physicians for Human Rights.

Amy Zeidan, M.D., is an emergency medicine physician at Emory University School of Medicine and practices clinically at Grady Memorial Hospital. Zeidan is co-director of the Georgia Human Rights Clinic and a member of the Physicians for Human Rights Asylum Network.