Federal judge slams ICE for ‘doing nothing’ to get COVID-19 vaccine to detained immigrants

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ICE’s excuses have been extremely questionable, but again, this is ICE. The Buffalo News reports that while an attorney representing the agency claimed officials had been asking for vaccine doses from the state, “he did not explain why the facility could not obtain doses from the federal government, which supplies them to the states.” One would think that ICE, which is, you know, a part of the government, might be able to do that.

But ICE’s plan to vaccinate people in its custody is confusing because there really isn’t a plan. “ICE has often implied that it’s up to states to provide vaccines for immigrant detainees,” Mother Jones reported. ‘The states can figure it out’ is an interesting flex from ICE, considering it has also very consistently threatened states. “Compared to ICE, the Bureau of Prisons has worked closely with the federal government’s vaccination team to obtain doses,” the report continued, vaccinating more than 50,000 people in Bureau of Prisons custody through last month. 

Yet ICE apparently can’t handle roughly 50 eligible people in its custody at one facility. If that sounds like complete bullshit to you too, it’s because it is. ICE could easily exercise its discretion and just simply choose to release immigrants. ICE could say, we can’t get the vaccines, go figure it out on your own. But it won’t, with Judge Vilardo agreeing with Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York that detainees have been “deprived of their constitutional rights by being detained without access to a vaccine they are eligible for under New York guidelines,” the report continued.

While Vilardo unfortunately did not release detainees, he scheduled a court hearing for next week, telling the advocates to go ahead and schedule outside vaccination appointments. But it’s unclear if ICE is actually being forced to take immigrants to these appointments. The Buffalo News reports that Vilardo also left open a possibility of ordering the federal government to provide doses. “These folks deserve a chance to get the vaccine,” he said according to the report. “I am not going to let the United States ignore them.”

But worse than ignoring detainees, ICE has actively endangered them. Remember that early outbreak at Batavia last year? It occurred just days after a group of detained immigrants there had desperately penned an open letter pleading for their release.

“Many of us have come, begging at the doors for asylum, seeking to avoid being tortured, raped and murdered by different regimes, or those the regime favor,” the detainees said in the March letter, describing persecution in their home countries including El Salvador, Venezuela, and India. But to remain detained at Batavia in the midst of a pandemic, “we are like the proverbial lamb waiting to be slaughtered,” they wrote. Unfortunately, Vilardo didn’t release them either, instead ordering ICE to work on implementing CDC guidance. 

What ICE instead did as an agency was literally worsen the pandemic by refusing to release detainees to shelter in their own homes and communities. “Across the United States, the COVID-19 caseload surged over the summer of 2020. ICE exacerbated the pandemic,” Detention Watch Network (DWN) said in as devastating report last year.

“We estimate that ICE detention activities were linked to an additional 245,581 cases from May 1st to August 1st,” the report continued. In a release received by Daily Kos, DWN said “[t]hese cases were concentrated in multi-county economic areas where ICE facilities are located. If the cases linked to ICE were the reported caseload of a country, that country would have ranked 16th in the world by total cases, outranking Germany, France, and Canada.”

The Times Union reports that a number of detainees are on a hunger strike at Batavia, one man for 19 days so far. “I am doing this because I suffer from depression,” Raul said in the report. “I cannot hold on being here longer. I’m afraid I will get infected with the virus… Here, in the unit I am in… only the guards use masks, the detained don’t use masks.” Like the report notes, the detention camp is experiencing the worst caseload of any ICE facility at the moment. 

“Currently, it seems that nobody is taking responsibility for vaccinating both people who are incarcerated there and the people who work there,” New York Civil Liberties staff attorney Amy Belsher told the Times Union, “which is a huge problem because people in congregate settings like detention centers are especially vulnerable to virus outbreaks.”





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