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ICE detention facilities worsened El Paso’s COVID-19 outbreak, new study says

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More than 1,200 COVID-19 cases in El Paso can be attributed to community spread caused by ICE’s failure to contain COVID-19 at its facilities, a new study says.

Published this month by Detention Watch Network, the study found that counties containing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities reported COVID-19 cases earlier, experienced faster spread of the virus, tended to have worse outbreaks, and had a higher likelihood for a health care emergency. Nationwide, the study attributes an additional 245,000 COVID-19 cases to ICE’s failure to release people from detention. 

“Basically, I think of ICE facilities as ongoing super-spreader events,” said study co-author Gregory Hooks, professor of sociology at McMaster University in Canada. 

“Do the places where (ICE) detains people have an otherwise unexplainable spike in cases? The answer is yes. The statistics show that that didn’t happen by chance — it’s systematic. Where you have ICE, you have more cases than you would expect otherwise,” he said.

The study examined COVID-19 cases between May 1 and Aug. 1. The El Paso economic region used for the study includes El Paso, Hudspeth and Culberson counties in Texas, as well as Dona Ana, Otero, Luna, Grant, Sierra and Lincoln counties in New Mexico. During that period, those nine counties reported just over 16,000 new COVID-19 cases. The study says at least 1,257 cases were caused by community spread from the El Paso Service Processing Center and the Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico, suggesting the ICE facilities added about 8.5% to the region’s number of infections.

Community spread from ICE detention centers would most likely occur through employees and contract workers who live in the community.

As of Nov. 20, ICE’s website reported one employee COVID-19 case in El Paso. The section on employee confirmed cases has since been removed from ICE’s website. 

ICE has never included contract workers in their employee case count numbers, and it is unknown how many of the more than 600 contract staff members of El Paso Service Processing Center have tested positive for COVID-19. The contractor Global Precision Systems has not disclosed the total number of contract employee cases, despite numerous requests from El Paso Matters. 

Since the study period ended, El Paso has suffered one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the country. El Paso’s COVID-19 caseload surged dramatically in the fall, with hospitals overwhelming capacity and rising numbers of deaths. 

As of Dec. 10, more than 1,700 El Pasoans have died with COVID-19 as the confirmed or suspected cause of death, and the total number of positive cases in the El Paso area is nearing 100,000.

“The numbers show what the number of show,” said co-author Bob Libal, a communications consultant with extensive experience in immigration advocacy, “which is the catastrophic impacts because ICE didn’t take medical professionals, detained immigrants and advocates seriously at the beginning of the pandemic who were calling on ICE to dramatically reduce it’s detainee population, stop transfers, stop deportations — all the things that would have mitigated the spread of the virus in the system and then outside of the system.” 

The study coauthors said the worsened outbreak in areas with ICE facilities has nothing to do with the detainees themselves, and everything to do with ICE’s response to the pandemic. 

The El Paso Service Processing Center currently has the largest COVID-19 outbreak of any ICE facility in the nation, with 45 confirmed cases as of Dec. 8.

The outbreak at the facility has been ongoing for months, and detainees have repeatedly made claims of medical neglect, inadequate PPE among guards, and lack of sufficient quarantine protocol. In October, a group of detainees launched a letter writing campaign in an attempt to draw attention to the conditions within the facility that they said contributed to the COVID-19 outbreak. 

“(ICE) is firmly dedicated to the health and safety of all individuals in our custody,” said Leticia Zamarripa, West Texas spokesperson for ICE. “The extensive precautions ICE has taken in response to COVID-19 are addressed in detail on our Coronavirus informational page: https://www.ice.gov/coronavirus.” 

The study contends that the only “just and long term solution” would be to release all people from ICE detention. They are far from alone in this assessment: epidemiologists and medical experts have referred to ICE facilities as a “ticking time bomb,” and numerous human rights groups, religious groups, and public health experts have called for the release of people from ICE detention. 

“As we have seen across the country, ICE’s choice to hold people in detention centers — where social distancing is impossible and conditions are notoriously unsanitary — allows COVID to spread like wildfire. This study confirms this unfortunate but preventable reality,” said Kate Huddleston, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. 

In Southern California, a federal judge recently ordered the release of 250 ICE detainees after pandemic-related concerns were raised in a lawsuit by the ACLU. 

Study coauthor Hooks said that, in El Paso, the COVID-19 levels dramatically exceed that of other metropolitan areas with similar population size, pointing to ICE facilities as a contributing factor. 

“In (table four on page 22 of the study), El Paso ranks 15th out of 170 economic areas, and it is by no means the 15th most populated area in the United States. El Paso’s had more than its fair share of additional cases from ICE activities,” Hooks said.

Correction: The estimate of added infections for El Paso in the study covered a nine-county region in Texas and New Mexico, not just El Paso County. This story has been updated to include the number of infections for those nine counties between May 1 and Aug. 1.

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René Kladzyk

René Kladzyk is a musician and writer based in El Paso. She performs original music as Ziemba, and has written for publications including Teen Vogue, i-D, and The Creative Independent. Her new album came out on Sister Polygon Records in September 2020, and she is hopeful that we’ll be able to enjoy live music together IRL again soon enough.

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