E. Goldman, left, and Alex Berkman, right, ride in a caravan in May to protest conditions that detainees being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement face outside of the Broward Transitional Center, during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

E. Goldman, left, and Alex Berkman, right, ride in a caravan in May to protest conditions that detainees being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement face outside of the Broward Transitional Center, during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Lynne Sladky / AP

ICE Detention Operators Defend Coronavirus Response Amid Growing Concerns

More than 3,000 immigrants in federal custody have tested positive for COVID-19.

The leaders of private sector companies that contract with the federal government to detain immigrants defended their responses to the novel coronavirus pandemic amid growing criticism as cases have spread at facilities around the country.

The CEOs of four private sector detention companies said they have maintained adequate personal protective equipment throughout the pandemic, provided such equipment and supplies to detainees and maintained proper social distancing policies, though watchdogs and migrants themselves have raised concerns to the contrary. More than 3,000 detainees, 280 contractors and 45 ICE employees have tested positive for COVID-19. 

The immigrants in ICE custody are screened for coronavirus symptoms upon arrival at the contract facilities, the officials told a panel of the House Homeland Security Committee on Monday, and those flagged for symptoms or exposure are “typically” tested within days. Select facilities have conducted “saturation testing” of every individual in their care, giving facilities a better sense of outbreaks and who to isolate. Scott Marquadt, CEO of Management and Training Corp., cautioned that while testing is important, it is “not a panacea.” The officials said most facilities do not retest individuals who are asymptomatic. 

A Homeland Security Department inspector general report last month found immigrants held in federal detention have inadequate access to equipment and supplies to protect them from the spread of the novel coronavirus and those who have tested positive for COVID-19 are not being quarantined or isolated from the rest of the population. The IG’s findings were based on a survey answered by about 200 ICE facilities around the county. 

The executives repeatedly stressed they are following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and that the safety of the detainees and staffers is their top priority. Contray to reports on the ground, three of the companies said they provided masks to every employee and detainee. Damon Hininger, CEO of CoreCivic, differed in saying masks were optional for detainees. All of the officials said they are operating around half capacity at their facilities, enabling them to fill only every other bed or cell while making up for employee absences due to sickness or quarantining. 

ICE generally keeps 50-75 detainees in each “pod” in its facilities, the DHS IG said last month, creating “unique challenges for detention centers to mitigate the risk of infection and transmission of COVID-19.” As a result, ICE did not always separate those who were symptomatic or had tested positive from the rest of the population. The New York Times last week reported on conversations with more than 30 ICE detainees and found social distancing was “near impossible” and PPE was “almost non-existent.” 

ICE leaders did not send officials to testify at the virtual hearing. Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., who chairs the Border Security, Facilitation and Operations Subcommittee that held Monday’s hearing, said the agency cited White House guidance instructing administration officials not to testify before Congress unless the hearing is held in person. 

Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., the panel’s ranking member, criticized his colleagues for holding the hearing without ICE present, and for setting unrealistic expectations for the agency’s employees. 

“We create ever moving goalposts for hardworking federal employees and contractors who are simply doing their jobs abiding by the laws as prescribed by Congress,” Higgins said. 

The company executives highlighted their treatment of workers, saying they have adequate PPE, testing and paid sick leave. Hininger noted CoreCivic has paid its detention facility workers a $500 bonus. One of the CEOs, however, noted his company only began sending symptomatic employees home “weeks ago.” The contractors suggested a recent uptick in cases among employees and detainees at their facilities—nearly half of the workforce at CoreCivic facility in Eloy, Arizona, recently tested positive, for example—was attributable to a corresponding uptick across the country.   

Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., accused the executives of being caught off guard by the pandemic and said they should be held accountable by Congress. 

“You mentioned our being responsible to you,” responded Rodney Cooper, executive director of LaSalle Corrections, “but we are also held responsible to the good lord and that’s the one I care about the most for how we treat detainees and how we treat anyone, so the safety of anyone is our concern.”