As COVID-19 Spread Through Midwest Detention Centers, ICE Struggled to Provide Accurate Data 

Inaccessible and inconsistent, statistics publicly reported by the enforcement agency contribute to its systemic mishandling of COVID-19 — underscoring a clear need for greater oversight, researchers say.

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A few days before Christmas last year, Florian Crainic sat in his cell at the Jerome Combs Detention Center, feeling feverish and achy. The 50-year-old knew something was off, and his first thought was that he had COVID-19. He was right — but it would take the detention center nearly two weeks to issue a proper diagnosis and separate him from the 27 other immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Kankakee County jail, an hour south of Chicago. In the meantime, nearly every single one would receive a positive diagnosis.

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Crainic is one of 19,897 immigrants in the United States held in detention known to have contracted COVID-19 between March of last year and July 12, 2021, according to ICE records. Immigrant detention centers have struggled to control outbreaks. Nationwide, nearly one in ten immigrants detained by ICE have tested positive for COVID-19 as of July 13. This is despite a federal mandate to reduce crowds at detention centers by limiting capacity to 75 percent and local jurisdictions’ issuance of guidelines to curb the spread of coronavirus. 

Borderless Magazine reviewed over 15 months of COVID-19 case data at the 11 county jails in the Midwest contracted by ICE to detain immigrants, which all report to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Chicago Field Office. We found serious gaps in the data ICE reported to the public and problems with the agency’s methodology. Researchers Borderless spoke to found similar problems with ICE’s data. They argue that the real COVID-19 case numbers may be exponentially higher than those official figures being reported to the public.

Amidst this unclear picture of detention center data, COVID-19 continues to be a problem for detained immigrants with outbreaks happening in Midwest detention centers as recently as this week. Persons in detention in Illinois became eligible for a vaccine on January 25, and all who wanted to be vaccinated had received shots as of April 13, according to Kankakee County Sheriff Michael Downey. But administrators at the Jerome Combs Detention Center did not receive vaccine doses until April 6, 2021 due to “unknown delays,” Downey said. 

While many in the Midwest are getting back to their pre-pandemic life this summer, Borderless Magazine’s analysis shows that COVID-19 is still an urgent problem in our local and national detention centers. In the past month, for example, total recorded COVID-19 cases across all ICE detention centers jumped by 2,711 cases. 

Problematic — and Partial — Data 

ICE began publicly reporting COVID-19 case data among individuals detained in its custody in March of last year, posting and updating information on its website. Currently, the agency provides daily updates on the number of current confirmed cases, the total detained population and a running total of the number of COVID-19 tests administered to detained individuals nationally. 

At the local level, ICE reports the number of active cases in detention facilities, a running total of confirmed cases and total COVID-19-related deaths per facility. COVID-19 testing data is not reported at the facility-level.

While ICE initially reported COVID-19 case data for its detention center staff on its website, the agency no longer does so, despite requests from House representatives last summer. While the website updates ICE’s national detained population, it does not provide daily population statistics per facility, making it impossible for the public to see the COVID-19 positivity rate in a local detention center.  

Map by Adriana Rezal/Borderless Magazine

Borderless Magazine compiled ICE COVID-19 case data from March 2020 to date, using daily and sometimes hourly screenshots of ICE’s website that are recorded by the Wayback Machine, a nonprofit internet archive. We found that in addition to being limited, the data publicly posted by ICE can be inconsistent. While analyzing ICE COVID-19 case data for the 11 Midwest facilities [Boone County Jail, Chase County Detention Facility, Clay County Jail, Dodge County Jail, Kankakee County Jail (Jerome Combs Detention Center), Kay County Justice Facility, Lincoln County Detention Center, McHenry County Correctional Facility, Montgomery County Jail, Morgan County Adult Detention Center], Borderless Magazine saw two major inconsistencies with ICE’s reported data. 

Firstly, Borderless Magazine recorded at least 12 instances at different Midwest facilities in which the number of “confirmed cases currently under isolation or monitoring” was greater than the total confirmed COVID-19 cases for all time. Identified cases under isolation or monitoring may fluctuate as individuals contract the virus and are later considered recovered. But because cumulative cases are a running total of all cases of COVID-19 since reporting began in March 2020, this number should always be more than or equal to the number of current cases. For example, from June 14 to July 8 2021, Boone County Jail has reported a higher number of current cases than cumulative cases. On July 8, the center reported 20 current cases and only 4 total cases.

Secondly, ICE data has reported decreases in the number of total confirmed COVID-19 cases — a statistic that should either flatline or increase. Borderless Magazine found this occurred at least 26 times at the Midwest detention centers we examined. For example, on September 21, 2020, the number of cumulative cases reported by Chase County Detention Facility decreased from 59 cases the day before to 50 cases. The following day, the number rose to 60 cases. 

Incomplete Data Paints an Incomplete Picture

Such discrepancies in ICE’s COVID-19 reporting can make it difficult to understand how the immigration enforcement agency has handled the pandemic in its facilities, according to Nina Siulc, director of immigration research at the Vera Institute of Justice. More broadly, these issues make it even harder for outside parties to suggest policies to improve existing systems.

Tracking the COVID-19 data that ICE reports is part of a larger effort by the Vera Institute of Justice to understand ICE’s impact on the immigrant system through data. Last year, the nonprofit research and policy organization developed an epidemiological model that estimated how COVID-19 could spread in immigration detention facilities over a 60-day simulation period, from mid-March to mid-May 2020. 

Using ICE data from financial year 2016, researchers found that the actual number of positive cases across detention facilities may have been “up to 15 times higher than the figures reported by ICE” during the simulated period. Furthermore, Vera’s number could be underestimated as it did not account for employee positivity rates. 

“Our data is emphasizing the real lack of transparency and accountability ICE is giving the public,” Siulc said. “ICE’s policies affect human beings — human lives — and we cannot decide what’s wrong if we don’t have the right data.”

Adding to the problems is ICE’s method of organizing and distributing information. The agency does not provide the public with COVID-19 data in accessible formats such as spreadsheets or downloadable files. Instead, its website provides a live database only, tallying numbers in sparse tables, with each update replacing past data that then disappears. Those who want to get a fuller picture of the data must painstakingly track and record long-term information themselves.

This system does little to foster public trust in or accessibility to the reported data, according to Adam Garcia, a research associate with the Vera Institute who helped analyze ICE’s COVID-19 data for the institute’s simulation.

“First and foremost, this data should not exist because there should not have been an epidemic of COVID-19 in detention,” Garcia said. “But, as the data exists, ICE should be delivering this data to the public in a format that’s consumable by both humans and computers and undergoes rigorous quality assurance testing so that when we analyze the data that’s available, we have some certainty of its accuracy.”

According to Siulc, legislation is needed to keep the agency accountable for its data reporting. 

“[ICE is] reporting because they must, but Congress and other officials are not interrogating enough what they’re doing,” Siulc said. “That hampers accountability. We do not know, for example, if they require facilities to report data on a regular interval or even how they get the data. Basic stuff you would expect from a data integrity and transparency point of view. What we know is based on incredibly limited information. We’re barely gleaning what’s going on.”

In response to Borderless Magazine queries, an ICE representative said that the agency has a clear protocol for testing detainees upon arrival at detention centers. 

Since June 4, 2020 new arrivals are placed in a cohort that is quarantined from the general population for 14 days. Those who receive negative test results and exhibit no symptoms during the 14-day period are released to the general population. 

If an individual tests positive for COVID-19 while in detention, ICE protocol says they would be quarantined for 14 days and “receive appropriate medical care to manage the disease,” according to the ICE website

Despite allegedly uniform testing procedures, data analyzed by Borderless from ICE’s coronavirus records suggests that Midwest detention centers handled COVID-19 outbreaks very differently. 

Some had little to no problems with the virus. In Missouri, Montgomery County Jail, which has an average daily population of 130 people in ICE detention, reported only one confirmed case of COVID-19 during the pandemic, as of July 12. Other facilities have struggled to keep its detained immigrant populations safe, like Kankakee’s Jerome Combs Detention Center — which had 78 percent of their detained immigrants contract COVID-19 in a two-week span in late January to early February this year. 

Local jails, which hold both ICE and non-ICE inmates, were largely left on their own to interpret and follow CDC and ICE guidelines when it came to COVID-19. This setup seemed to leave gaps in COVID-19 prevention procedures. In the case of one Midwest detention center in Pulaski County in Ullin, Illinois, for example, the Office of the Inspector General “identified violations of ICE detention standards that threatened the health, safety, and rights of detainees” as recently as April of this year.

Trying to Get Out

Facing pressure from doctors and immigrant advocates early in the pandemic, ICE attempted to control the outbreak of COVID-19 in detention facilities by reducing its detained population. In spring 2020, ICE reportedly determined which individuals in its custody were considered medically at-risk for severe COVID-19 complications. Under pressure from groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, the agency released more than 900 immigrants by May, with an additional 193 released under orders from federal courts.

Many immigrants failed to qualify for release, however.

Crainic, originally from Romania, came to the United States in 2005 seeking asylum. He is of Romani descent, and Roma are the most socially disadvantaged ethnic group in Romania, facing systemic discrimination, harrassment and other threats to their livelihoods. 

Crainic was not among those released during this period of new policies, despite being at high-risk of contracting the virus. In addition to being in an age group that faces increased risk, he has underlying health issues, including diabetes and hypertension. 

Worried that he would get sick if he remained at Kankakee County Jail, Crainic decided to seek assistance from the ACLU. In July 2020, the group’s lawyers filed a joint petition for him and four other detained individuals requesting immediate release from the detention center based on their medical histories that would likely cause serious complications should they contract COVID-19. According to the case documents, the ACLU argued that the Kankakee detention center was failing to comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention orders for proper sanitation, regulation of personal protective equipment and social distancing, and effective screening and testing of staff and detained immigrants. Additionally, the petition cited, the facility lacked sufficient medical staff to treat patients and care for those considered high-risk in the event of an outbreak.

Ultimately, Crainic’s ACLU petition was denied. The court was unable to determine Crainic’s medical condition based on existing documents, despite extensive medical records showing that he suffered from stage one hypertension, diabetes and obesity. Crainic and the four other detainees remained at the detention center.

The judge in the ACLU case concluded that the detention center had all necessary measures in place to protect those in custody. But those efforts were clearly insufficient.

Crainic was never tested for COVID-19 until he began feeling sick. In January 2021, after he contracted COVID-19, his lawyer filed a medical neglect report on his behalf. In the report, Crainic detailed Kankakee County Jail’s inadequate COVID-19 precautions, as well as his own experience in quarantine. 

“From the beginning of December through almost to Christmas, nobody was wearing a mask — just me,” Crainic said in an interview with Borderless Magazine. Each detainee was given just two cloth masks over the summer and had not been issued hand sanitizer, according to Crainic.

 He also explained that throughout his quarantine, he was not seen by a doctor despite his underlying health issues, and was given only decongestant medication and a daily multivitamin. 

Crainic’s account of the conditions are consistent with concerns raised by Robin Kelly, U.S. Representative of Illinois’ 2nd Congressional District, in a letter she submitted to JCDC in response to multiple constituent requests. In the letter, Kelly inquired about COVID-19 precautions and other sanitary issues in the detention center. 

In his response to Kelly, Michael Downey, the Kankakee County sheriff, stated that masks, sanitizer and COVID-19 testing were all available to those in detention, though some housing units offer sanitizer only upon individuals’ requests “for security reasons.”

Staff at Kankakee’s Jerome Combs Detention Center continue to claim that they are adhering to proper safety precautions, although some detained immigrants have been released under court order due to coronavirus-related health concerns.

Between January 22 and 26, 2021, the Kankakee jail reported its highest number of active COVID-19 cases among ICE detainees to date at 22 cases. During this outbreak, the facility’s total average daily population was reported to be 28 people. 

Policy Promises and Lingering Symptoms 

While COVID-19 continues to spread through immigrant detention centers, the federal government has backtracked on its early effort to reduce detained populations. The number of people in ICE custody nationwide since President Joe Biden took office has nearly doubled: The detained population has gone from 15,104 in January 2021 and 14,088 individuals in February to 27,217 as of July 8. 

The availability of vaccines for the American public have not slowed the spread of COVID-19 among the growing detainee population. Over 40 percent of all COVID-19 cases reported by ICE at detention centers since the pandemic began have happened in recent months, according to a recent New York Times analysis.

At a July 8 rally held by the Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights in downtown Chicago, local politicians highlighted the urgent need for immigration reform and rethinking the detention system.

“We have to stop the deportations,” U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky said to the crowd of 500. “We have to end the detention. We have to stop separating families.”

COVID-19, ICE, detention, Chicago, Midwest, sanctuary, immigrant, data, cases, CDC, outbreaks, pandemic, Pritzker, governor
Gov. J.B. Pritzker pledges to actively advocate for the rights of all immigrants during a rally against deportations on July 8, 2021 in downtown Chicago, Ill. Photo by Camilla Forte/Borderless Magazine

At the event, Illinois Gov. J.B Pritzker promised to keep working with local organizations to ensure the Illinois Way Forward Act is made law. The bill has been passed by both houses and is awaiting Pritzker’s signature. If approved, it would prohibit counties from entering into contracts with ICE, limit how local law enforcement cooperates with the agency and ultimately shut down all immigrant detention centers in the state.

“I believe in an Illinois that will continue to hold our federal government accountable to our ideals of liberty and justice for all,” he said. “I’m very proud to stand with you today, because each and every day, I want our immigrant community to know that Illinois is and always will be your home.”

For Crainic, such promises come too late. He is recovering from the virus but has had lingering symptoms like high blood pressure. He remains worried that he will contract the virus a second time or develop further health complications. 

“They said they could protect me, but they didn’t,” said Crainic. “I don’t know in the future how it’s going to affect my health. My life from now on is not going to be the same, that’s for sure.”

 

Northwestern University journalism graduate students Jeff A. Chamer, Amy Ouyang and Isabelle Stroobandt contributed to this reporting.

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