The Fight to Contain COVID-19 in Immigration Detention Centers

Even before the spread of the coronavirus, activists and public health experts admonished carceral spaces such as prisons, jails, and detention centers because of their inadequate healthcare and sanitation. Now, during the pandemic, the risk of contracting the coronavirus increases rampantly within the confines of detention centers.

Many individuals and organizations deemed the spread of the coronavirus to detention centers, prisons, and jails to be inevitable. Consequently, many rallied behind the movement “Free Them All for Public Health,” an extension of the “Free Them All” movement of prison abolition, with the specific goals of reducing the spread of COVID-19 and enhancing the health outcomes of vulnerable populations. Immigrant detention and carceral institutions more broadly can exacerbate the spread of infectious diseases and inhibit effective treatment in the following ways: 

  1. The nature of confinement does not allow individuals to practice social distancing (1). 
  2. Carceral spaces have limited healthcare, sanitation, and other necessities (2). 
  3. Incarcerated people with preexisting medical conditions are more vulnerable to the contraction of infectious diseases.
  4. Immigrants may face a language barrier, making it more difficult for them to attain the healthcare they need (3). 
  5. Detention centers do not exist in a vacuum; infected individuals can spread the disease to employees, who can subsequently spread it to the population at large. 

A Brief History of COVID-19 in Immigration Detention Centers

Before COVID-19 had reached the United States, Immigration Customs and Enforcement, or ICE, has come under fire for their lack of adequate detainee treatment and healthcare. In 2017, the organization Freedom for Immigrants argued against the Trump Administration’s plan to increase the demand for immigration detention by chronicling a history of medical negligence, which coincided with the death of 185 detainees over 14 years (4). Moreover, according to an inspection conducted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2019, four ICE detention centers had violated the 2011 Performance-Based National Detention Standards (5). These violations included “moldy bathrooms, food safety issues, lack of hygiene items, and inadequate medical care” (6). 

Based on this history of insufficient and often negligent medical care, physicians, infectious disease experts, and detention medical experts showed concern for the possible spread of COVID-19 in detention centers as early as February of 2020 (7). Consequently, they urged for the release of immigrants and asylum seekers. In mid-March, the immigration judges union, the ICE attorney union, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association all insisted that immigration courts close to mitigate the spread of the virus (8). Despite these warnings, immigration courts remained open, and ICE did not make any effort to release anyone in their custody. Furthermore, the acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, explicitly stated that they were “not going to …  release all the detainees in our care”(9).


Because ICE did not follow the recommended protocol, the virus quickly spread to ICE detention centers, infecting detainees and employees alike. On March 24, the first ICE detainee contracted the virus (10). According to the Health Affairs journal, approximately 1406 detained and 44 ICE employees had tested positive for the coronavirus by May of 2020 (11). In other words, 50.6 percent of  ICE detainees tested positive for the virus, a mere three months after the first detainee contracted it (12).  ICE claims to follow the guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (13). However, critics argue that “gaping holes in testing guidelines and ICE’s failure to significantly reduce population size have made these facilities hot spots for the virus” (14).  

Proposed Policy Changes Moving Forward

Immigration lawyers, human rights activists, and public health experts agree that the most effective way to reduce the spread of the contagion is to adhere to the original recommendations: releasing detainees, halting deportations, and ICE arrests, and ensuring that immigrants and asylum seekers feel safe enough to seek medical attention if necessary (15). Despite the unrelenting nature of ICE and the DHS, other groups and organizations have worked to release detainees. For example, District Judge Dolly Gee of California ordered the release of all children held in ICE’s custody for more than 20 days (16). Additionally, in June of 2020, Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced the Immigration Enforcement Moratorium Act (S.4011/H.R.7569) (17). This bill would ensure that individuals be released from ICE detention and would suspend ICE arrests and deportations during the pandemic (18). This proposal is co-sponsored by Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Kamala Harris (D-Calif) (19).

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that the time is always right to do what is right. The U.S. government has made many missteps in its dealings with COVID-19. However, there is still an opportunity to support immigrants by releasing them from detention and ensuring that they feel safe and empowered enough to get the medical attention they need and deserve. You can support the Immigration Enforcement Moratorium Act by clicking here.


  1. Ghandehari, Setareh; Viera, Gabriela. “Courting Catastrophe: How ICE is Gambling With Immigrant Lives Amid a Global Pandemic.”
  2. Ibid 
  3. Galvin, Gabby. “Language Access Issues a Barrier During COVID-19.” last modified April 16, 2020.
  4. “Detention: A Death Sentence?” Freedom For Immigrants online.
  5. Erfani, Parsa; Lee, Caroline; Uppal, Nishant; Peeler, Katherine. “A Systematic Approach to Mitigate The Spread of COVID-19 In Immigration Detention Facilities.” last modified June 17, 2020.
  6. Ibid 
  7. “Immigration Detention and COVID-19 Timeline: Administration Fails to Heed Warnings, Worsens Spread of Coronavirus.” Human Rights First online, June 1, 2020.
  8. Ibid 
  9. Ibid 
  10. Ibid 
  11. Ibid 
  12. Ibid 
  13. Reznick, Alisa. “‘You Can Either Be A Survivor Or Die’: COVID-19 Cases Surge in ICE Detention”. Last modified July 1, 2020.
  14. Ibid 
  15. “Courting Catastrophe.” 
  16. Romo, Vanessa. “Judge Orders ICE To Free Detained Immigrant Children Because of COVID-19.” last modified June 26, 2020.
  17. “Senator Markey Introduces Legislation to Halt Deportations Harmful Immigration Enforcement Actions During Coronavirus Pandemic.” Ed Markey online. June 18, 2020.
  18. Ibid 
  19. Ibid 

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