Last week, Omicron, the new extremely contagious variant of COVID-19, seemed to be spreading everywhere in Louisiana but one place. However, in Immigration Customs and Enforcement detention facilities in the state the number of positive cases was only 1% of the total population, a number immigrant advocates questioned.
Then the new week began, and the number of positive cases among the immigrant population skyrocketed.
ICE data updated Wednesday afternoon showed a total of 93 immigrants tested positive for COVID-19 and are currently in isolation inside the 10 facilities under the New Orleans ICE Field Office’s supervision. That number was 17 three days earlier.
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Considering all 14 facilities that the NOLA ICE Office handles, including Adams County Correctional Center in Mississippi and Etowah County Jail in Alabama, the increase is even more striking. According to ICE data, a total of 168 immigrants tested positive for COVID-19. That number was 28 on Sunday, marking a +600% increase in less than 96 hours.
“The virus has changed, but the advice of doctors, epidemiologists, and public health officials has not,” said Layla Razavi, interim co-executive director at Freedom for Immigrants, a nonprofit organization devoted to ending immigration detention. “Thousands of medical experts have repeatedly warned that social distancing is impossible for people in crowded detention conditions.”
As of Wednesday, 25 immigrants are under isolation or monitoring after testing positive at the Alexandria ICE Staging Facility, while 26 contracted the virus at Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield. At the LaSalle ICE Processing Center in Jena, 26 tested positive, while seven have been in isolation at the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center.
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Nationwide the number of positive cases inside ICE facilities jumped to 1,581 as of Wednesday, data showed. That number was 285 last week.
Last week, an ICE spokesperson told The Acadiana Advocate the agency's database is the only official source for information related to the detention facilities, adding that the agency “continues to conduct COVID testing on all individuals during intake at all facilities, ensuring newcomers are isolated and monitored in accordance with CDC guidelines.”
ICE has consistently been under fire for its handling of COVID-19 inside the detention facilities since the pandemic started. Pro-migrant advocacy groups and immigration lawyers challenged the low data last week, claiming that ICE failed to respect the CDC guidelines and COVID-19 protocols.
The immigration agency has repeatedly rejected the accusations.
“Since the onset of the pandemic, ICE has taken proactive measures to tailor conditions across its detention network to maintain safe and secure environments for detainees and staff, while adhering to guidelines for the prevention and control of infectious and communicable diseases from the CDC,” the ICE spokesperson added.
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"This has included reducing the overall detained population, providing appropriate hygiene and personal protective equipment (PPE), suspending social visitation, and maximizing social distancing practices with staggered meals and recreation times.”
But dozens of asylum seekers The Advocate interviewed in November said the opposite, that the detention facilities' guards fail to follow strict rules on face coverage and social distancing. "When they spoke to us, they did not care to stay six feet apart. The dorms are packed," said one of them, Kokou Lare, an asylum seeker who spent months of detention at Winn Correctional Center.
A September 2021 report by the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security also observed that staff and detainees failed to wear masks and respect social distancing inside of Richwood Correctional Center, one of the facilities inspected in Louisiana, run by the private company, LaSalle Corrections.
In a letter sent Dec. 15 to ICE, the American Civil Liberties Union criticized the agency claiming that it hasn’t a coordinated strategy to ensure that detained people receive COVID-19 booster shots.