EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has agreed to a list of recommendations to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in detention facilities and to better respond to future pandemics.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General conducted several inspections of ICE facilities and found that the agency struggled to effectively control COVID-19 and adequately protected detainees and staff.
In a report released, the OIG issued several recommendations for ICE to improve its management of COVID-19, to which the agency has concurred.
Among the recommendations, (OIG) recommends ICE practices the following:
- Ensure detention facilities meet ICE’s COVID-19 requirements sets by the Pandemic Response Requirements (PRR)
- Use of masks by detention facility staff
- COVID-19 testing of all new detainees in ICE facilities
- Transfer of detainees allowed only by PRR
- Revise tracking reports to keep detainees with confirmed COVID-19 cases apart from those who have are believed to possibly have COVID-19 but are not confirmed
- Communicate with detainees regarding their medical care or existing conditions
- Practice custody redeterminations for high-risk detainees
- Ensure all detention facilities conduct facility-wide testing and have plans approved by ICE
- Implement and track corrective action plans related to discrepancies found during monthly spot checks
ICE inspected nine facilities remotely in 2020 and 2021 and found many areas within detentions facilities struggled to manage the health and safety of detainees even after a full year of practice, according to the OIG report.
The report notes although there was an adequate supply of personal protective equipment, staff and detainees did not always use PPE or socially distance.
ICE reported they were able to keep the population of detainees to a minimum, but they did not immediately inform detainees of their COVID-19 test results. OIG also said the data ICE had on incoming detainees was limited.
ICE’s PRR found detention facilities also did not test all new detainees coming into facilities for COVID-19. This requirement went into effect on Oct. 27, 2020.
Not only were detainees unaware of their test results but Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) also did not test all facility staff of COVID-19.
From March 1 to June 1, 2021, COVID-19 cases in detention facilities rose by 149 percent, according to the report by OIG. So far, the agency has reported that 27,346 detainees have tested positive for COVID-19 nationwide. Currently, 631 detainees are under isolation or monitoring.
Officials said ICE limited its enforcement activities at the start of the pandemic to focus on detainees who posed the most risk of spreading the virus.
Among the inconsistent use of PPE and COVID-19 testing, facilities failed to conduct facility-wide testing with approval from ERO leadership. ERO said the approval was a requirement because ICE Health Services Corps (IHSC) had not yet provided guidance for facility-wide testing.
ERO headquarters were unable to release the bi-weekly spot checks that overlook facility-wide COVID-19 compliance and stated that Custody Management Division was working to develop a process to track these reported discrepancies. As a result, ICE required facilities to conduct onsite in-person monthly spot checks, replacing the bi-weekly spot checks.
OIG reported the testing of all new detainees and staff improved but the data was inconsistent, according to the report. The ERO headquarters’ oversight of facilities during the pandemic continues to fall behind in some areas, OIG stated.
OIG said that some facilities have already taken action to better address COVID-19.
ICE asked for the recommendation of custody redetermination to be closed as they have evaluated its detained population on CDC guidelines. They have released 700 individuals who meet the criteria of higher risk for severe illness. This allows detainees the option of alternatives to detention until their immigration cases are concluded.
According to OIG, ICE said they are updating the PRR guidelines to better align with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Officials ultimately agreed to the recommendations set by OIG and said IHSC will modify guidance in the facilities and weekly reports. ICE said some recommendations have been resolved and are open.