The American Civil Liberties Union is urging the Biden administration to provide Covid-19 vaccine access to immigrants in detention, citing the rapid spread of coronavirus in congregate settings, according to a letter sent to the Department of Homeland Security and obtained by CNN.
Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities wrestled with a growing number of positive cases, totaling more than 15,000 confirmed cases and nine deaths. As of May 25, there are 1,495 positive Covid-19 cases in ICE custody, according to agency data.
The ACLU, which filed dozens of lawsuits against ICE during the pandemic, called the lack of a vaccine strategy for the detained population a “failure” in a Thursday letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and acting ICE Director Tae Johnson.
“ICE’s failure to ensure a coordinated strategy for vaccination continues to endanger people in detention nationwide,” the letter reads, adding: “Meanwhile, Covid-19 outbreaks continue to spread in detention facilities nationwide, risking the health and safety of detainees despite ICE’s duty to protect those in its custody, in violation of their constitutional rights.”
There are more than 22,000 immigrants in ICE custody.
In a statement, ICE said it’s “firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody” and that the Department of Homeland Security’s chief medical officer “is rapidly working on scaling our own internal capability to vaccinate detainees in our care across the country.”
ICE previously described vaccination procedures in a document titled “Covid-19 Pandemic Response Requirements,” putting the onus on detention facilities to contact their state’s vaccine resource, such as the state or country department of health, to obtain vaccines. House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson also called for an investigation Thursday into alleged violations of ICE’s pandemic response requirements at the Adams County Detention Center in Mississippi, including detainees being grouped together in tight quarters and not having enough disinfecting supplies.
Only a limited number have been vaccinated, in part because of the differing priority guidance across states, Johnson told lawmakers earlier this month.
“Because of that sort of variance, we have been looking at working with CDC and HHS to just see if we can get our own batch of vaccines, deploy them across the country to the ICE detainee population,” Johnson said.
As of May 5, 2,707 detainees have received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine and 1,229 detainees are fully vaccinated, according to Johnson.
Mayorkas said Wednesday that plans to offer Covid-19 vaccines to detainees are “under review.” “That is something that we are looking at very carefully,” Mayorkas told Democratic Rep. Lauren Underwood when asked about plans to vaccinate the detained population during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing.
But senior staff attorney at the ACLU National Prison Project, Eunice Hyunhye Cho, called the delay “unacceptable.”
“It is a literal matter of life or death,” Cho told CNN. “This was a completely foreseeable issue and ICE has failed to protect people who are in their custody.”
The ACLU outlined a list of expectations in their Thursday letter, including providing Covid-19 vaccines to detention facilities for detainees and staff, ensuring that linguistically and culturally appropriate educational materials are provided to people about the vaccine and making sure detainees are provided a vaccine shortly after requesting one.