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Disease outbreaks and quarantines in immigration detention centers spark concerns



When Danielle Jefferis showed up at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility in Aurora, Colorado, last weekend during visiting hours, she expected nothing more than a routine legal visit with a client.

Instead, Jefferis, an attorney at De Novo Legal and fellow at the University of Denver Civil Rights Clinic, was turned away by officers who told her her client couldn’t leave the pod because the facility was under quarantine.

There are currently 271 people quarantined at the facility, which houses almost 1300 detainees, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement spokesperson Alethea Smock told INSIDER. Since January, there have been 11 confirmed and two suspected cases of mumps, according to the Tri-County Health Department of Colorado, and eight cases of chicken pox.

After the officers told Jefferis that she couldn’t see her client, she asked if it was possible to meet in a non-contact booth, in which a window separates the two but they can still pass documents. That request was declined. The officers told her that a legal call would work, but she argued that that wasn’t sufficient for getting critical signatures pertaining to her client’s case.

“They basically said ‘sorry’ and I left,” Jefferis told INSIDER. “When you can’t meet with your client, you can’t advance the case and you can’t get things done. Legal calls do help in a way, but they certainly don’t go far enough, and a lot of these cases depend on documentation and going over things with your client. When you can’t do that, the case is stalled.”

“And when the case is stalled, they are in detention longer than they otherwise would be,” she said.

Disease outbreaks have sparked concern among immigrant advocates

A total of 2,287 detainees have been quarantined around the country as of March 7, ICE spokesperson Brendan Raedy told INSIDER. In addition to the quarantine at Aurora, ICE officials said there is another outbreak at the Pine Prairie facility in Louisiana. Since January, there have been 18 detainees with confirmed and probable mumps cases at that facility, said ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox, and around 300 people currently quarantined as a result.

According to internal emails reviewed by Reuters, the cases at Pine Prairie were detected after migrants were transferred from a Mississippi facility with cases of mumps and chicken pox. There have also been mumps cases in facilities in Texas.

Mumps is a contagious disease caused by a virus with symptoms including fever, headache, muscle ache, loss of appetite and, in some cases, swelling of the salivary glands, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cases started to increase across the US in 2015, with 150 outbreaks and more than 9,000 cases reported between January 2016 and June 2017. In the first two months of 2019, there were 151 reported mumps cases across the US based on preliminary data reported to the CDC.

But in detention centers its a different story. In the past year, there have been 236 detainees with a confirmed or probable case of mumps, in addition to 16 people with suspected cases, Raedy said. In comparison, there were zero reported cases between January 2016 and February 2018.

Recent disease outbreaks have sparked concern from advocates about access to adequate medical care in immigration detention facilities — and highlighted the repercussions of keeping people quarantined for lengthy periods of time, perhaps the most concerning that immigrants are unable to access their attorneys.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these outbreaks are really ramping up at a time when detention is also ramping up,”

The disease outbreaks come as more people than ever are being detained, with 50,049 people in immigration detention as of March 6, according to Raedy, and the White House proposing in its 2020 budget to increase the number of immigration family detention beds.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these outbreaks are really ramping up at a time when detention is also ramping up,” said Elizabeth Jordan, an attorney with the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center. “The mechanisms for caring for folks are stretched beyond the breaking point.”

In this Aug. 9, 2018, file photo, provided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, mothers and their children stand in line at South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement/Charles Reed via Associated Press

In June, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting substandard medical care in immigration detention facilities, based on publicly-released government investigations of deaths in detention. The report found evidence that “subpar and dangerous practices including unreasonable delays, poor practitioner and nursing care, and botched emergency response,” contributed to detainee deaths.

A February report from the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general also found that public and private contractors running immigration jails have routinely violated federal detention standards in recent years. Despite the contractors operating those facilities bringing in billions of dollars since the beginning of fiscal year 2016, they routinely failed to notify ICE about egregious violations that occurred under its watch — including sexual assault, staff misconduct, and failure to provide sufficient mental health observation. One facility was fined due to “a pattern of repeat deficiencies over a 3-year period, primarily related to health care and mental health standards.” Despite this, ICE only imposed fines twice.

Most recently, a March report published by the nonprofit Disability Rights California, which investigated conditions at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center in California, found mental health and medical treatment in immigration detention centers to be woefully inadequate. For instance, the intake and screening process often failed to appropriately identify migrants’ disabilities and people with serious mental health needs were only provided brief encounters with health staff. The GEO Group, the private prison company contracted with ICE to operate the facility, also significantly underreported the number of suicide attempts at Adelanto, the report added.

“We’ve seen people who are sick, not with infectious disease but just sick, and they’ve been ignored,” Jefferis told INSIDER. “But when you add the infectious component to it, it just collectively exposes everyone to a risk that is amplified by this inattention and poor medical care and the low staffing and just the facilities’ disregard for the people inside.”

In this Sept. 10, 2014, file photo, an unidentified Guatemalan woman stands inside a dormitory in the Artesia Family Residential Center, a federal detention facility for undocumented immigrant mothers and children in Artesia, N.M.
Juan Carlos LLorca/ AP

The GEO Group operates both the facilities in Colorado and Louisiana that are experiencing quarantines. When asked about the disease outbreaks, Pablo Paez, the company’s spokesperson, told INSIDER that all individuals housed at ICE Processing Centers are medically screened immediately upon arrival and receive a full physical within their first two weeks.

He said medical professionals follow performance-based standards set by ICE and within guidelines set by the CDC. “It is common that many of the individuals assigned to our care have had little to no access to healthcare prior to our services and therefore have been unaware of existing medical conditions and the risk those conditions may pose to others,” Paez said.

“ICE takes very seriously the health, safety and welfare of those in our care,” Raedy, the ICE spokesperson, told INSIDER. “Comprehensive medical care is provided to all individuals in ICE custody.”

Ibuprofen and water are standard treatments for illnesses across the board

The recent disease outbreaks tell a different story. Jordan said the screenings at facilities are often bare bone and that staff doesn’t take complaints seriously, creating dangerous delays in providing care. She added that Ibuprofen and water are often the standard prescription for illnesses across the board.

“Poor detention conditions and inadequate medical staffing has already been a problem, pre-dating these outbreaks, and resulting in undiagnosed illnesses, poor and delayed treatment, and preventable detainee deaths,” said Altaf Saadi, a clinical instructor of medicine at UCLA, fellow at the National Clinician Scholars Program at UCLA, and member of the Physicians for Human Rights Asylum Network. “Recent disease outbreaks are just the latest manifestation of problems arising from large-scale detention… what we’re seeing is an already substandard system being strained more and more, with serious health consequences as a result.”

Read more:Migrant miscarriages in ICE detention centers have almost doubled during President Trump’s first two years in office

Kathleen Page, an associate professor and infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University, told INSIDER that a major challenge is ensuring ICE’s health standards are actually being implemented and met — especially after the February Inspector General report found that “ICE does not adequately hold detention facility contractors accountable for not meeting performance standards.”

“The standards broadly address issues of how to manage, screen, monitor, and prevent infectious diseases,” she said. “The question, though, is how this is implemented at the facility level, how this is monitored, and whether they’ve adapted to the increase in the number of people in detention and how that has complicated matters.”

In response to the viral disease outbreaks at detention facilities across the country, a group of Democratic lawmakers sent a letter in February to ICE acting Director Ronald Vitiello, writing that they had “serious concerns about the public health risks and treatment of detainees.”

Jefferis told INSIDER that the quarantines not only make it difficult for migrants to access their attorneys, but also prevent some detainees from getting fresh air. Detainees at the Colorado facility aren’t even allowed to leave their pods to go outside.

Both Jordan and Jefferis told INSIDER separately that they have heard in recent days of court hearings being completely cancelled in response to the quarantine — prolonging detention for those inside.

INSIDER reached out to ICE about those claims but did not receive a response.

Page, the infectious disease expert, said that quarantines are often a way to prevent ongoing disease transmission, but acknowledged there are other safeguards like wearing a face mask or administering a third booster to people who already received the mumps vaccination.

“You always have to weigh the pros and cons,” she told INSIDER. “In terms of being able to see your lawyer, precautions can be taken so people still have access to essential services. While some isolation may be necessary, it’s very important to weigh how that is affecting the whole person and ensure that basic human rights are protected.”

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