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Highly-contagious omicron could spread quickly through crowded ICE facilities

EYDER PERALTA, HOST:

There have been numerous reports of overcrowding at facilities run by the Immigration and Customs Enforcements agency, also known as ICE. This makes detainees, especially those who are unvaccinated or have underlying health conditions, all the more vulnerable to the highly contagious omicron variant currently tearing through the U.S. We're joined now by Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney with the ACLU's National Prison Project. Thank you so much for being with us.

EUNICE CHO: Thanks for having me this morning.

PERALTA: Do you know what percentage of the roughly 22,000 detainees currently in detention are vaccinated?

CHO: We don't know that answer. And part of the issue is that ICE has been very hesitant to come forward with clear and complete information about the number of people and the percentage of people who have been vaccinated in immigration detention.

PERALTA: So according to ICE's own statistics, more than 31,000 detainees have tested positive for COVID, and nine have died. How are positive cases tracked within the facilities? And are they doing regular testing and contact tracing? Or do they only count the cases where the person is showing symptoms?

CHO: That's actually still very hard to tell. From what we can see is that ICE has some policies with respect to requiring testing of people who are exiting facilities or are being transferred, although, sometimes, that's not always followed. Earlier in the pandemic, we heard of many stories of people who were symptomatic, had been told by the doctors that they probably did have COVID-19 but were not getting tested. So we believe that the numbers of people who have had COVID are actually pretty undercounted and underreported by ICE.

PERALTA: Your own research shows that a majority of ICE detainees are held in private facilities. Is that the reason for how little we know about what's happening?

CHO: That is part of the reason for the lack of transparency. For example, the Freedom of Information Act doesn't apply to private prison companies. And it is a vast network that ICE is overseeing with respect to people who are in detention.

PERALTA: Are you hearing from detainees about how they're coping now with the pandemic? I mean, what are they telling you?

CHO: Many detainees are reporting that they're having difficulty getting basic protections against COVID-19, including what is the most important thing - the COVID-19 booster shot. ICE has had more than two months to provide booster shots. Last year when vaccines first began to be available, ICE did not issue guidance as to how to vaccinate people in custody for over 10 months.

PERALTA: So, Eunice, I'm guessing the ACLU has taken the administration to court over this. What do they say about it?

CHO: Well, the administration says that they are doing their best, that they're trying to do better. And certainly, the government has the constitutional duty to protect everyone in their custody. But oftentimes, what they are doing is simply not enough. And we've heard reports again throughout the pandemic of people begging for soap, for face masks, for the most basic of protections, only to be met with really brutal force and sometimes tear gas, solitary confinement and retaliation for speaking out about these conditions.

PERALTA: Look. Since the start of the pandemic, the criminal system - the Federal Bureau of Prisons - has placed more than 36,000 inmates on home confinement. But considering that most of the people in ICE detention have no criminal record and haven't even been sentenced, are there efforts being made to release them on the same grounds?

CHO: The most important thing to remember about immigration detention is that people who are in detention are awaiting adjudication of their civil immigration cases. They could very well be waiting these cases in the safety of their homes. Our litigation and the litigation of many of our community partners have been to ask courts to release people from detention because of the unsafe conditions of confinement. And many courts have agreed to do so. What the Biden administration needs to do now is to continue these efforts.

PERALTA: That's Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney with the ACLU's National Prison Project. Thanks so much for your time.

CHO: Thanks, Eyder.

PERALTA: We reached out to ICE, and the agency responded in a statement that vaccinations are available to detainees upon request. About 22,000 people are currently in ICE detention, and the agency statement did not say what percentage of them have been vaccinated against COVID-19. ICE says 512 booster shots have been administered as of early last week. The agency said new detainees are tested and that infected and high-risk detainees are housed individually. It added that ICE's testing and COVID-19 response are consistent with the latest CDC guidelines. The statement did not detail any policy changes in response to the highly contagious omicron variant. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.