Some South Florida detainees in immigration detention have begun to receive the COVID-19 vaccine as part of a Miami federal court case settlement.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement administered Moderna shots at the Glades County Detention Center in Moore Haven late last week, detainees and immigration lawyers told the Miami Herald. Still to go are detainees at the Krome Processing Center in Miami-Dade and the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach, though it’s unclear when that will take place.
The vaccination rollout at Glades is ICE’s second reported vaccine distribution at a detention facility. The first vaccinations took place in New York after a federal judge slammed the agency for “doing nothing to get [detainees] the vaccine. Nothing. Zero.”
The court settlement — which was filed under seal at the request of ICE — is part of an ongoing civil rights lawsuit that was launched more than a year ago by national immigration advocates. The class action suit, filed at the beginning of the pandemic in April 2020, initially sought the release of thousands of detainees at the three South Florida facilities as COVID-19 ran rampant. In the original 111-page complaint, detainees say their imprisonment violates their due process rights by creating an undue increased risk of severe illness or death.
Though populations inside the detention centers were significantly reduced to allow for social distancing and many were released as a result of a court order, close to 75% of the detainees remained in ICE detention due to previous misdemeanor or felony charges, court records show. A year later, as part of a final settlement, ICE agreed to vaccinate detainees at the three centers.
Despite COVID-19 spreading quickly inside ICE detention facilities, the agency has yet to establish a national vaccination program and cannot say how many detainees have been vaccinated. Unlike the Bureau of Prisons, ICE says it’s relying on state and local health departments to procure vaccine doses.
Details on the entire settlement won’t be made public until both parties get court approval of a proposed injunctive order. Both ICE and immigration advocates are waiting for the court to approve their final settlement within the next week. If not, the case will head to trial on April 27.
According to court records, ICE says the agency has a vaccination plan for the three facilities. ICE officials denied several Herald requests seeking a copy of the plan but instead provided a statement via email.
“At this time, a limited number of ICE detainees have begun to receive the COVID-19 vaccine based on availability and priorities for vaccinating individuals in the state where they are currently detained,” said Miami ICE spokesman Nestor Yglesias.
For Duan Dixon, a Jamaican citizen held at Glades, getting the COVID-19 vaccine was “an answered prayer.”
“Whatever their plan is for us detainees, I’m just glad I was able to get the shot. I have kids that I want to live to see,” said Dixon during a video chat interview with the Herald. Dixon, who has been held in ICE detention for eight months awaiting deportation, said “every additional day in here is a death risk, and at this moment, everybody is fighting for survival — including me.”
But not all detainees see it that way. Dixon, and a handful of other Glades detainees, said the majority of detainees refused the vaccine.
“Most of the inmates, like me, are refusing to be vaccinated,” said Edwin Zeron, a detainee who has since been released. “Like the others, I stated fear for my life. You think I’m going to trust ICE, the same people who imprisoned me, to inject what’s likely to be poison into my body? Hell no. I don’t trust them.“
The strong refusal to get vaccinated has some immigration advocates wondering if ICE has done enough to educate detainees on the public health crisis, including vaccination literacy. Other concerns include ICE approaching the detainees themselves, as opposed to a public health entity or agency.
“While the recent vaccinations at Glades is an important, positive step, we continue to monitor the actions ICE is taking to provide relevant information regarding the vaccine to those in its custody and what steps ICE is taking to encourage people to accept the vaccination,” said Jessica Schnieder, director of the detention program at Americans for Immigrant Justice, one of the six national immigration law firms representing the ICE detainees in the case.
As part of a settlement that’s still in the works, ICE agreed to conduct educational presentations to detainees at the three facilities about the benefits of vaccination in terms of personal and public health.
But that’s not how it panned out, detainees say.
“There weren’t really any presentations, really,” Dixon said. “It was all very quick. ICE came in, said we had the option of getting vaccinated or signing a refusal form and not getting the vaccine. That was done in English and Spanish and then they left. In total, it all probably took like a few minutes.”
Cases of detainees with the coronavirus continue to skyrocket at detention centers nationwide. As of Thursday night, ICE data shows the Glades County Detention Center has had at least 188 reported COVID-19 cases. Krome’s tally is currently at 243 and Broward’s center is at 253.
Though COVID-19 vaccination has begun in prisons and jails across the United States, little is known about vaccination programs in U.S. immigration detention. Experts following the rollout of vaccines at local jails and prisons say targeted vaccination efforts at such facilities are essential, noting that 90 of the 100 largest COVID-19 cluster outbreaks in the United States have taken place at detention centers.
Congressional investigations have revealed that widespread failures in providing healthcare have led to COVID-related deaths of detainees in multiple facilities, including Glades. There is currently no organization tracking vaccination efforts in ICE detention.