In 2020, 137,749 detainees were processed at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) immigration detention centers where 80,200 of the detainees were tested for COVID-19, recording 8,622 positive cases across 100 facilities, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported. Among those who tested positive for the virus, 7,687 detainees were exposed while in ICE custody, 435 detainees were exposed before entering ICE custody and ICE data did not identify the point of exposure for approximately 500 detainees.
According to GAO, Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) is responsible for overseeing compliance of immigration detention standards across all ICE detention facilities. In late January 2020, ERO provided a broad range of requirements and guidance materials in response to the pandemic, then by mid-March ICE began providing regular updates from the CDC and implemented a range of policies to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission in detention facilities. In April 2020, ERO issued the COVID-19 Pandemic Response Requirements.
The COVID-19 Pandemic Response Requirements listed specific requirements that included screening and quarantine procedures, identifying individuals at higher risk of illness due to COVID-19, cleaning and disinfection of facilities and the use of personal protective equipment, the report said. The document has undergone revisions with the current version being issued March 16, 2021.
GAO interviewed ICE officials and representatives from six facilities and found that, “additional opportunities to clarify new requirements or discuss specific facility conditions were available through regular conference calls and communication with ERO headquarters,” GAO said.
“Two officials also noted that the volume and frequency of the updates to these materials presented some challenges to review and implement under short time frames,” GAO said. “All five of the private facility operators we spoke with reported that they also independently monitored CDC guidance as the pandemic unfolded, and they each developed their own policies to help direct pandemic response activities.”
In April 2020, ICE began administering a recurring survey that assessed facility compliance of COVID-19 policies found in the COVID-19 Pandemic Response Requirements, the report said. The survey consisted of mostly yes or no questions about the availability of PPE supplies, social distancing and reporting protocols for positive cases.
According to GAO, originally the surveys were administered strictly at facilities with an assigned Detention Service Manager, with another representative of the Detention Management Unit to validate the surveys.
“Our [GAO] review of survey responses from the six facilities we interviewed indicated that the Pandemic Response Requirements were generally being met, but each contained several ‘no’ responses,” GAO said. “Of the surveys we reviewed, facility responses ranged from one to six ‘no’ responses out of the 74 survey questions.”
Some example of ‘no’ responses consisted of not sanitizing personal mail, not coordinating with local or state health authorities when a symptomatic or COVID-positive detainee was released, no policies regarding social distance to accommodate with religious practices and no appropriate PPE through November 2020, the report said.
“According to Detention Service Managers we spoke with, any issues identified with the survey responses were generally addressed informally through phone calls and other communications; however, we observed that several of the ‘no’ responses in the surveys we reviewed remained consistent over the course of several months,” GAO said. “ERO officials noted that there was a general expectation that repeat ‘no’ responses for the survey questions would be addresses in some manner between April and November 2020—the time periods in which we reviewed survey responses—and lack of corrective action could be grounds for a potential deficiency.”
The report continues by stating that those specific oversight efforts were revised in a new version of the survey, and included new monthly on-site compliance checks, in December 2020.
“Further, while some facility operators and ICE field officials we spoke with considered the survey an effective tool in managing compliance with the Pandemic Response Requirements among facilities, others stated that the tool was somewhat burdensome and the results did not change much over time,” GAO said. “However, officials from one ERO field office considered the survey to be redundant, due to its biweekly administration and the policies already implemented within the facilities. Detention Service Managers from the facilities we spoke with also generally noted that the responses to the survey questions showed little variation over time.”
According to GAO, Detention Service Managers were generally not on-site at their assigned facilities after March 2020 and were not available to validate survey responses from the COVID-related policy implementation in April 2020 through late summer 2020. Custody Management officials noted that Detention Service Managers were able to request additional information and had ‘reasonable confidence’ in the managers’ extensive knowledge of their facilities.
“However, they acknowledged that they have less confidence in the accuracy of survey responses in facilities without an assigned Detention Service Manager,” GAO said.
ICE officials reportedly made additional efforts to help address COVID-19-related impacts due to the limited on-site presence. Then, in December 2020, ERO introduced a revised survey that was to be completed on a monthly basis, instead of bi-weekly, consisting of 134 questions and obtained more specific information about the implementation of the COVID-19 Pandemic Response Requirements, the report said.
GAO’s report follows the Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) findings of failings in preventing the spread of COVID-19 at detention centers used by ICE in Pulaski and Arizona. OIG found precautions such as social distancing and mask wearing were not always enforced.