How ICE Data Undercounts COVID-19 Victims

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A guard escorts an immigrant detainee from his 'segregation cell' back into the general population at the Adelanto Detention Facility on November 15, 2013 in Adelanto, California.

A guard escorts an immigrant detainee from his 'segregation cell' back into the general population at the Adelanto Detention Facility on November 15, 2013 in Adelanto, California. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

August 11, 2020

Lourdes Maria Mejia was reunited with her husband for two weeks before the virus took his life.

Oscar Lopez Acosta was in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody when the pandemic began. As COVID-19 spread among detainees at the Morrow County Correctional Facility in Mount Gilead, Ohio, Acosta was terrified, Mejia said. He was just 42 years old, but his diabetes put him at higher risk. So when ICE agreed to release him on April 24, after 18 months of detention, it meant more than a reunion with his family; it was a chance to protect his health.

It did not last. Days later, Acosta fell sick. He was hospitalized with diabetes complications and tested positive for COVID-19, according to medical records reviewed by FRONTLINE. On May 8, he appeared to be recovering and was discharged. Two days later, his wife saw him come out of their bathroom, clutch his chest and fall.

“I lost control,” Mejia said. “There wasn’t time for anything, not even for the ambulance to arrive. He died so fast.”

COVID-19 was the primary cause of Acosta’s death, according to his death certificate. But if you look at ICE’s coronavirus statistics, you’d never know it happened.

According to ICE, only four detainees have died of COVID-19 in its facilities out of 4,444 detected cases. But the agency only tracks deaths that take place within its custody — not those of people who contract the virus while in detention, but then die of the illness once they are released or deported. 

Immigrant advocates say that lack of information has left them unable to assess the true cost of outbreaks in ICE facilities. It is a pattern that fits ICE’s historical lack of transparency beyond the COVID-19 crisis, said Erika Pinheiro, litigation director of the migrant aid organization Al Otro Lado.

“This has been a problem, with ICE hospitalizing people, releasing them, and then they die,” Pinheiro said.

Acosta was released on an order of supervision because of his medical risk and was asymptomatic for COVID-19 at the time, ICE said in a statement.

The agency said that since March, it has overhauled its procedures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including reducing the intake of new detainees, releasing over 900 people at high risk from the virus and increasing the availability of testing. Another 500 detainees have been released by court order, as immigration advocates have filed lawsuits to get medically vulnerable people out of detention centers.

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is dedicated to the health and safety of all individuals in our custody,” spokeswoman Danielle Bennett said in a statement. “Since the outbreak of COVID-19, ICE has taken extensive steps to safeguard all detainees, staff and contractors, including: reducing the number of detainees in custody by placing individuals on alternatives to detention programs, suspending social visitation, incorporating social distancing practices with staggered meals and recreation times, and through the use of cohorting and medical isolation.”

Still, ICE has continued to draw criticism for its response to the pandemic. Last week U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria ordered ICE to test all detainees in the Mesa Verde Detention Center in Bakersfield, Calif., saying the agency had shown “deliberate indifference to the risk of an outbreak,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Since COVID-19 was first detected in the U.S., immigration advocates and public health experts have warned that outbreaks in detention facilities were inevitable. Crowded conditions and frequent detainee transfers could create a “tinderbox” scenario that would overwhelm health care systems near these centers, two doctors who worked with the Department of Homeland Security wrote to Congress.

“The nationwide network of detention centers, where frequent and routine inter-facility transfers occur, represents a frighteningly efficient mechanism for rapid spread of the virus to otherwise remote areas of the country where many detention centers are housed,” Dr. Scott Allen and Dr. Josiah Rich wrote in the March 19 letter.

Days later, ICE announced the first confirmed COVID-19 case among its detainees. By the end of April, nearly 500 detainees had tested positive out of 1,000 total tests. On May 6, Carlos Escobar-Mejia, a 57-year-old Salvadoran man being held at Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, became the first person reported to have died of COVID-19 in ICE custody. 

Even though they both spent months in ICE detention facilities, Escobar-Mejia’s death is counted in ICE COVID-19 statistics while Acosta’s is not.

Born in Honduras, Acosta met Lourdes Maria Mejia as he delivered food to farmers at the coffee plantation where her father worked, she said in an interview with FRONTLINE. They began seeing each other, but were separated as violence in the country intensified in the 2000s. Acosta’s nephews were murdered, and Acosta went into hiding, fearing the “delinquents” who attacked his family would come for him next, Mejia said. Finally, Acosta fled to the United States. He was deported in 2009, she said, returned to the U.S. and was once again deported in 2012. 

Mejia and Acosta returned to the U.S. later that year, crossing the border and traveling to North Carolina before moving to Ohio, where they settled and had their third child. In 2018 their son was involved in a car crash, and Acosta was arrested by local police when he went to help him, Mejia said. He was turned over to ICE and was detained in several facilities before being transferred to the Morrow County Correctional Facility in Ohio. On April 21, four new detainees were transferred in, and cases of COVID-19 began to spread. 

Those detainees came from the Butler County Jail, ICE told FRONTLINE, where only one week earlier, the Butler County sheriff had announced the jail’s first confirmed case of COVID-19.

“He was constantly telling me ‘I’m worried about my illness. There are a lot of people here who are feeling it. People with symptoms here. I’m going to die. I’m going to die,’ ” Mejia said. “When they realized that things were serious with corona, that’s when they decided to let him free, but he was already infected.”

When Acosta was released, ICE had not tested any asymptomatic detainees in the Morrow County facility — a decision that was in accordance with CDC guidelines, the agency said. 

Acosta’s death was first reported in the Columbus Free Press.

Detainee transfers have contributed to the outbreaks that have flared up in ICE facilities across the country, said Sirine Shebaya, executive director of the National Immigraton Project of the National Lawyers Guild. The federal Bureau of Prisons stopped inessential transfers in March, but ICE has not done so, Shebaya said.

‘“ICE continued to transfer people left and right with nary a care in the world, like we weren’t in the middle of a global pandemic,” Shebaya said.

ICE said that transfers have continued during the pandemic in accordance with CDC guidelines, in part to promote social distancing by moving detainees from more crowded to less crowded facilities. Detainees are screened for COVID symptoms before transfer and those under medical isolation are not moved, ICE spokeswoman Carissa Cutrell wrote in an email.

“All detainee transfers and transfer determinations are based on a thorough and systematic review of the most current information available,” Cutrell wrote.

ICE did not provide current transfer data for facilities with ongoing outbreaks prior to publication.

“We have encountered a number of people who have been released from ICE custody but have contracted COVID-19 from detention and become debilitatingly ill. There are folks who were in the ICU for a month, folks who still aren’t able to walk,” said Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU National Prison Project. “The scale of suffering that has taken place can’t be measured.”

And when sick people are deported, their fates — and whether they spread the virus further — can be difficult to track.

Dora Melara, a Honduran attorney who works with the migrant legal aid organization Justice in Motion, said all deportees arriving in her country from the United States are tested for COVID-19 by the Honduran Ministry of Health. Some arrive with negative test results from the U.S. but develop fevers and test positive, Melara said. They are either told to isolate in their homes or sent to government quarantine shelters.

“Unfortunately, there is now a lot of social discrimination against returned migrants due to the fear that they may be carriers of the virus,” Melara wrote in a statement in Spanish. “I don’t understand why the US government continues to deport people without being sure they are not sick.” 

Guerline Jozef is the president of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, an organization that works directly with immigrants who are detained, released and deported by U.S. authorities. She knows of at least four people who were deported and then tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving in Haiti, she told FRONTLINE. She knows little else of what happened to them after they left the United States.

“We don’t know if they are still alive, because we were not able to find them,” Jozef said.

— Maxwell Carter contributed reporting.


Dan Glaun, Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

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