The Otero County Processing Center on Jan. 4. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Despite an increased effort to vaccinate migrants held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities, a large number of people in El Paso-area ICE detention have refused the vaccine, according to local officials and legal advocates.

El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said that among those offered the vaccine at local ICE detention facilities, only about 33% accepted.

Immigrant rights advocates said issues with the vaccination efforts are linked to an array of structural problems with the federal agency, including: a pattern of medical neglect that fuels distrust among migrants, language access issues that spur confusion and lead to misinformation, and a lack of a systematic nationwide protocol for vaccinating people in ICE detention. ICE officials in El Paso did not respond to a request for specific vaccine refusal rate data. 

“As much as we’d like to do it, we cannot force them to do it,” Samaniego said. “In the facilities they feel a little uncomfortable and they’re not trusting … because they’re captured, they’re captive at that point.”

The number of people held in ICE detention has nearly doubled in recent months; up from less than 14,000 in early March to more than 27,000 as of July 8, according to data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Coinciding with increased detention numbers and the rise of the highly transmissible Delta variant, coronavirus infections have been surging at ICE detention facilities nationwide. 

Leticia Zamarripa, a spokesperson for the El Paso ICE field office, said the agency is expanding vaccination efforts on a voluntary basis for people in detention. The El Paso office also covers New Mexico. 

“ICE is supporting the efforts of state and local partners by working with its federal partners to receive its own allocation of vaccines for immediate, nationwide distribution and anticipates receiving additional vaccines in the future,” she said in a statement.

There have been 285 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among people detained at Otero County Processing Center since the start of the pandemic as of July 8, according to ICE’s website. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Manuel, an 18-year-old asylum seeker from El Salvador who was recently detained at Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico, said he refused the COVID-19 vaccine when it was offered. Manuel asked that El Paso Matters not publish his last name for fear that speaking publicly could have negative repercussions for his immigration case.

“I didn’t feel confident (in medical care at the facility) and I was also scared of the sort of reaction that I would have,” Manuel said in Spanish. 

He described how during his three months in ICE detention, he suffered from chronic testicular pain and frequently complained that the medication he was given was not working. Manuel said he struggled to be able to see a doctor while at Otero, and after being transferred to a different ICE facility in Florida, was informed that the medication he had been given was for diabetes — he is not diabetic. This added to his skepticism about the vaccine. 

All of the detainees at Otero are offered vaccines, according to Issa Arnita, spokesperson for Management and Training Corporation, the private contractor who staffs Otero. He said that 479 migrants detained there have received the vaccine, as of July 8. The facility began hosting vaccine clinics for detained people in early May, she said.

“We have provided fact sheets about the vaccines to detainees in English and Spanish and held meetings to provide them with additional information and to answer their questions,” Arnita said. He added that approximately 55% of the facility’s staff are vaccinated. 

Bering Straits Native Corporation’s subsidiary Global Precision Systems, the contractor for El Paso Service Processing Center, did not respond to requests seeking information about the number of vaccines administered or the level of vaccination among staff at the facility. 

Vaccine skepticism among people in ICE detention makes sense, said Theresa Cheng, the Immigration Team Lead for COVID Behind Bars, a data project by the University of California, Los Angeles to collect and report data on COVID-19 among incarcerated populations in the United States.

“Individuals in (ICE) detention harbor serious fears and mistrust of ICE operators because of years of medical mistreatment and neglect,” Cheng said. 

Language access issues can further compound confusion and distrust, she said. 

One in five people in immigration detention in the United States speak indigenous languages, according to two recent studies published by Americans for Immigrant Justice and the Chicana/o Latina/o Law Review. The number may even be higher: the number of indigenous language speakers in detention is not tracked in the U.S. immigration system.

“Some of the folks I’ve talked to said they were offered something but they didn’t know what it was, because there was no culturally competent person or language competent person who could explain what they were offering. So they didn’t know that they were vaccines,” Cheng said. 

Linda Corchado, the director of legal services for Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy, said language access issues have hindered vaccination efforts locally because ICE officials assume  migrants from Latin America understand Spanish and they fail to provide indigenous language interpretation services.

Linda Corchado

The lack of a systematic nationwide vaccination effort by ICE also compromises the effectiveness of the federal agency’s pandemic response, said Cheng. 

“ICE has not come up with a systemic protocolized way of making sure that the people they’ve detained are safe,” Cheng said. The agency then “passes the buck” to state and local leaders, which causes vaccination efforts to vary widely by region. 

“Some states like California and Washington have accepted the duty of vaccinating those who are detained within their own state borders, (but) other states have completely refused to acknowledge this responsibility,” she said. 

Although vaccines are being offered at El Paso-area ICE facilities, Corchado said that more could be done in terms of education and outreach in order to inspire confidence among the detained population. But Corchado added that vaccine or no vaccine, ICE detention facilities are not safe places from a public health standpoint.

“As always, vulnerability begets vulnerability. And that’s something that’s happening in detention when it comes to the vaccine,” Corchado said. 

Manuel, who Las Americas represents, was released from ICE detention on July 2 after initially being denied bond during an immigration court hearing on the basis that he had refused the vaccine. He said that Otero immigration judge Brock Taylor called him “a danger to the community,” and said he observed Taylor deny bond to two other migrants on the same grounds.

Rob Barnes, the regional spokesperson for the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review said “our adjudicators’ decisions speak for themselves,” when asked for comment about the judge’s decision.

Before that, Manuel said he had not been made aware that denying the voluntary vaccine could have any implications for the success of his immigration case. 

“I was pretty sure that I was not obligated to get vaccinated,” Manuel said. “I would have never imagined this would have affected my case like this.”

Cover photo: the Otero County Processing Center. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Correction: a previous version of this story inaccurately identified the judge who denied Manuel bond as  Judge Ralph Girvin. It was Judge Brock Taylor.

René Kladzyk is a freelance reporter who also performs music as Ziemba. Follow her on Twitter @ziembavision.