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COVID cases surge at El Paso ICE detention facilities

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Two El Paso-area Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities are seeing new large outbreaks in COVID-19 cases among detained migrants.

As of July 21, El Paso Service Processing Center had 75 current confirmed cases and Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico had 63 current confirmed cases, according to the “detainee statistics” section of ICE’s website. The El Paso ICE field office includes New Mexico.

Numbers have jumped up significantly since last week; ICE reported that EPSPC had one case and Otero had two cases as of July 12. 

El Paso Field Office numbers are part of a national upward trend: There are nearly 1,400 current COVID-19 cases among people in ICE detention, including several facilities in Texas with current outbreaks exceeding 100 cases. ICE’s website also lists 19 current COVID-19 cases at an El Paso Best Western Hotel being used for shelter and processing.

The spike in COVID-19 cases comes amid growing concern among advocates about the highly transmissible delta variant and problems with vaccination efforts at ICE detention facilities. Apprehensions of migrants on the southern border also continue to rise, leading to more people being detained.

“In May of this year, (COVID-19) case rates among people in ICE detention were more than 21 times higher than across the US population as a whole. In mid-May, it was reported that about 12%, one out of every 10 individuals in ICE custody had an active infection, which is staggering if you consider the US population,” said Theresa Cheng, citing data from COVID Behind Bars, a data project by the University of California, Los Angeles that collects and reports data on COVID-19 among incarcerated populations in the United States. Cheng is the immigration team lead at COVID Behind Bars, and is also an emergency physician and a human rights lawyer. 

“This is really a hotbox, and we aren’t seeing any amelioration of COVID prevalence rates in ICE detention whatsoever,” she said. 

ICE did not respond to specific questions about delta variant testing among detained migrants with COVID-19, and referred El Paso Matters to the information provided on the agency’s website.

“ICE continues to incorporate CDC’s COVID-19 guidance, which is built upon the already established infectious disease monitoring and management protocols currently in use by the agency,” according to ICE’s website.

Between February and early July, the number of people being detained by ICE nearly doubled  to more than 27,000 migrants detained as of July 8, according to data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.  The TRAC data also found that nearly 80% of asylum seekers and migrants being held in ICE detention facilities have no criminal records. Seeking asylum is a legal way to enter the United States, upheld by both domestic and international law. 

Linda Corchado, director of legal services at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, criticized President Joe Biden’s administration for continuing to make asylum-seekers an immigration enforcement priority. 

“This causes the kind of crisis we are seeing in detention now, with overcrowding, failure to quarantine and this false sense of comfort amongst ICE officials that vaccination efforts will somehow make it safer to detain during a pandemic,” she said. 

El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said that vaccination efforts in local ICE facilities have been difficult because of distrust of ICE among migrants. Samaniego said that as of July 7, only about 33% of those offered the vaccine accepted it. 

Migrants detained at local facilities have also raised alarms about rampant medical neglect, poor COVID-19 precautions and a failure among staff to follow pandemic protocols. 

Otero spokesperson Issa Arnita said that all people detained at the Otero facility are offered the COVID-19 vaccine, though clarified that it is voluntary for both staff and migrants. Arnita said approximately 55% of staff at the detention facility are vaccinated as of July 7. 

Bering Straits Native Corporation, the parent company of the contractor that staffs El Paso Service Processing Center, has not responded to requests for information about staff vaccination rates at EPSPC or current COVID-19 cases among staff.

Arnita said that 5 employees at the Otero facility have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past month, but the facility takes substantial COVID-19 precautions . 

“We follow the ICE COVID-19 Pandemic Response Requirements and CDC guidelines. Masks and social distancing are enforced. PPE is available throughout the facility. COVID screenings and temperature checks are routinely conducted. The dorms are kept at 75% capacity to allow social distancing,” Arnita said. 

El Paso area ICE facilities have struggled with COVID-19 outbreaks since the start of the pandemic; at one point in December 2020, the surge at El Paso Service Processing Center was the largest outbreak of any ICE facility in the nation. 

Corchado said the looming shadow of the delta variant ICE facility makes COVID-19 outbreaks more dangerous.

“We’re seeing numbers rise in detention during this very critical time when the delta variant is rampant across the country, and even persons who are not vaccinated are even more vulnerable, so it’s natural to assume that persons who are detained will be very much susceptible to getting infected with the delta variant,” she said in a July 7 interview with El Paso Matters. 

Aside from concerns about the current outbreak within ICE detention, there is also the potential for broader community impact. According to a December 2020 study by Detention Watch Network, ICE’s failure to contain COVID-19 within its facilities spurs larger and more severe COVID-19 outbreaks in the surrounding communities, and attributed more than 1,200 El Paso COVID-19 cases to community spread linked to local ICE detention facilities. 

Corchado said she anticipates the situation will continue to worsen if the federal agencies don’t change course in their approach with asylum-seekers.

“So long as there’s a failure to understand the reality on the ground and the very vulnerable nature of asylum seekers, I expect this situation will worsen,” she said.

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

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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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