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Citing quickly spreading omicron variant, advocates renew calls for release of detained immigrants

“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,” American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) National Prison Project Senior Staff Attorney Eunice Cho told NPR.

Litigation launched by the organization and its partners from the earliest weeks of the pandemic allowed many immigrants to continue fighting their cases from their homes instead of detention facilities, where infection rates have been 20 times higher than on the outside. “What the Biden administration needs to do now is to continue these efforts,” Cho continued to NPR.

Stressing this need is that two years into the pandemic, ICE continues to fail to adequately ensure the safety of people under its watch. In fact, ICE’s actions added hundreds of thousands of cases nationally, in addition to spreading the virus abroad via careless deportations.

“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,” Cho said. “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.” Public health experts noted at the time that ICE appeared to be doing little to nothing to inform immigrants of even the very basics about the vaccine. 

While full vaccination remains one of the best tools to protect against serious illness and death, allowing immigrants to shelter at home instead of congregate facilities could also prevent an untold number of new infections. Keep in mind that the Federal Bureau of Prisons has already done this for tens of thousands of people in its custody.

ICE has already been a hot-bed for transmission. Since the start of the pandemic, ICE has reported more than 31,000 cases and at least nine deaths. Martin Vargas Arellano contracted the virus while detained in California last year. But ICE released him only after he was seriously ill. He died three days later. “After releasing him from custody, ICE did not report his death, and Vargas Arellano’s own family and counsel did not find out about his passing until weeks later, after they filed a missing person’s report,” the ACLU said at the time.

Cho told NPR that because of ICE’s secretive nature, it’s unclear how many of the 22,000 people currently in ICE custody have been fully vaccinated. When NPR contacted ICE for comment, the agency said it had administered just 512 booster shots. 

“We reached out to ICE, and the agency responded in a statement that vaccinations are available to detainees upon request,” said NPR’s Eyder Peralta. But recall the civil rights complaint filed last year that said that when immigrants detained in California asked to be kept safe amid the pandemic, they got pepper-sprayed instead.

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