Hundreds of immigrants in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers tested positive for the coronavirus this week, compared with just 59 inside the much-larger Bureau of Prisons, a stark discrepancy that comes as lawyers and lawmakers are urging the Biden administration to swiftly vaccinate all detainees.
Infections in ICE detention have risen from 370 in mid-March to nearly 1,500 this week because more migrants are crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and many are arriving infected, federal officials said. But the American Civil Liberties Union says ICE has failed to create the type of robust vaccination program that helped the BOP drive down infections, and it told the Department of Homeland Security in a letter Thursday that detention centers have been "among the most dangerous" places during the pandemic.
"This is ICE's clear failure to provide for the health and safety of people in their custody," Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU National Prison Project, said in an interview, calling the disparity between the agencies' figures "stunning."
"There should be no one in detention who wants a vaccine and is unable to get it."
Individual immigration detention centers in Texas, Georgia and Louisiana each had more positive cases this week than the entire BOP, which holds nearly 130,000 people for criminal offenses and initially was hit hard by the pandemic. ICE is detaining 22,000 immigrants for civil deportation proceedings.
The disparity is emerging as the Biden administration is pushing to vaccinate everyone in the United States - including unauthorized immigrants - and the Department of Homeland Security has said it would not reduce ICE's funding in the Biden administration's fiscal 2022 budget, which is set for release Friday.
ICE spokeswoman Paige Hughes said DHS's chief medical officer is "rapidly working on scaling our own internal capability to vaccinate detainees in our care across the country."
DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told members of Congress at a hearing this week that he spoke with the medical officer about the issue.
"That is something that we are looking at very carefully, congresswoman," he said in response to questions from Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., about vaccinating as many detainees as possible.
"Vaccination for both DHS staff and detainees is essential not only for the health of both groups but also for preventing community spread and protecting all Americans," Underwood said at the hearing.
The Bureau of Prisons has tallied far more positive cases than ICE because the agency detains more people. But advocates for immigrants say the prisons' current caseload demonstrates the power of vaccines.
The Trump administration gave the BOP access to the federal vaccine supply, which has allowed the agency to increase doses from 14,700 in March to more than 184,000 this week.
"The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has taken swift and effective action ... and has emerged as a correctional leader in the pandemic," spokesman Donald Murphy said in a statement.
ICE officials have said they asked the Department of Homeland Security for similar access to vaccines under the last administration - which held record numbers of immigrants in detention - but did not get any.
Instead, ICE has had to rely on state and local health officials for vaccines, and officials acknowledged this month that most did not provide vaccines quickly. Multiple lawsuits have been filed to improve care and release detainees.
Acting ICE director Tae Johnson testified earlier this month that 2,707 immigration detainees had received at least one dose of the vaccine by May 5 - and 1,229 were fully vaccinated.
ICE's access to vaccines "varies significantly by state," he said at a May 13 budget hearing. He said ICE hoped to get "our own batch of vaccines so we can just deploy them across the country to the ICE detainee population."
Nearly 16,000 ICE detainees have tested positive for the coronavirus since the pandemic began - and the virus spread as the agency continued to transfer migrants from one facility to another under the Trump administration. Nine detainees have died.
More than 45,000 BOP inmates have caught the virus and more than 230 have died.
ICE officials said infections have risen in recent months along with apprehensions along the southwest border. Officials could not say precisely how many migrants caught the virus before arriving in federal custody. But they noted that referrals to ICE detention from the border tripled from February to April, when U.S. Customs and Border Protection referred nearly 14,800 people to immigration custody.
"We are noticing at intake that more individuals are positive as our numbers increase in our facilities," Hughes said. "It appears to be where the majority of our cases of covid are coming from."
ICE has cut detention capacity to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and sharply reduced arrests of longtime immigrants who are living in the interior of the United States. But officials continue to prioritize the arrests of recent border crossers, along with people who pose a threat to public safety and national security. And in recent weeks, as officials have allowed more migrants to enter the United States instead of expelling them to Mexico, the number of detained immigrants has risen to more than 20,000 from a low of around 14,000 early in the Biden administration.
Mayorkas ordered the closure of two detention facilities last week, but he has said that he did not expect to cut ICE's budget this year, disappointing advocates for immigrants who had hoped for a significant reduction.
Mayorkas signaled this week that he would use detention more sparingly than the Trump administration, which at its peak was detaining more than 50,000 immigrants a day.
"I am concerned about the overuse of detention," Mayorkas said at the congressional hearing this week, adding that he is looking at expanding "alternatives to detention," such as monitoring systems that allow immigrants to be out on bail as they await an immigration court hearing.