Over the last 11 months, while New Mexican communities have banded together to fight COVID-19, some of our most vulnerable neighbors, including hundreds of immigrant detainees, in the privately run Torrance County Detention Facility, Cibola County Correctional Center, and Otero County Processing Center have been screaming for help inside soundproof walls. As of February 3rd, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had confirmed 9,182 positive cases of COVID-19 across 118 facilities since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. In my job at the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center (NMILC), I speak with asylum seekers facing this reality every week.
ICE detention centers across the country have been hotbeds for the uncontrollable spread of COVID-19. A recent report found that the rate of COVID infection among ICE detainees was about 13.4 times the rate of the U.S. population each month between April to August. This infection rate, which has wreaked particular havoc in New México’s Otero County Processing Center, is a direct result of the inhumane conditions of ICE detention. This includes neglectful and abusive medical care, close quarters without quarantine infrastructure, limited access to personal protective equipment and hygiene supplies, and unnecessary and circular transfers between facilities.
ICE’s consistent disregard for the health and safety of those in its discretionary custody throughout this pandemic, especially bad in the detention facilities that contract with private prison management corporations, is unforgivable.
Anticipating the danger of COVID-19 in ICE detention, the New México Immigrant Law Center (NMILC) and other local partnering advocates, wrote a letter to Governor Lujan Grisham at the onset of the pandemic urging her to pressure ICE to release those held in its custody here in New México. Though state agencies have had limited authority regarding releases from ICE custody, ICE has recently stated that it will defer to state officials for COVID vaccination operations within ICE detention centers. This is New México’s make or break moment for ICE detainees facing the threat of COVID-19. Rather than handing vaccine doses over to private prison operators such as CoreCivic and MTC, the state must continue pressuring ICE to release those in its custody and facilitate the safe vaccination of our immigrant neighbors, both inside and out of detention. This can be achieved through partnerships with community-based healthcare providers.
This is New México’s make or break moment for ICE detainees facing the threat of COVID-19.
We know that private detention centers evade transparency and accountability in their medical practices, frequently failing to comply with basic CDC guidelines. As evidenced by the Irwin County Detention Center’s ghastly sterilization operation of detained immigrant women, private corporations are consistently keeping important, comprehensive information about their medical practices from their ICE detainees and state officials. This is on top of already-murky structures of consent in detention, where ICE and private prison officials often force immigrants (especially, those who do not speak English or Spanish) to sign legal and medical documents that they do not understand. As the vaccine has become more widely available, immigrants across the country have explicitly cited a fear of detention medical staff in their pleas for the vaccines to be administered by local, immigrant-friendly health care professionals.
In New México, we are fortunate to have dozens of culturally competent, community-based healthcare organizations who are trusted partners of our immigrant communities. Immigrants of color (especially, Black and Brown immigrants) have long faced simultaneous exclusion and exploitation in the American public healthcare system. It is now our obligation to implement vaccination plans that repair and strengthen relationships between those populations and the systems that are supposed to protect them.
At NMILC, we believe that this is the state’s duty: to ensure that immigrants both inside and out of detention receive comprehensive, culturally-appropriate information about the vaccine so they can make informed decisions about their health. We cannot outsource this to private contractors. Not only is it the state’s responsibility to ensure the health and safety of those in ICE custody; it should be a welcome opportunity for New México to show its power as a state that values all residents, regardless of immigration status.
Emma Kahn is the Detention & Asylum Program Coordinator for the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center.
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