Following months of pleas from advocates including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Biden administration has escalated efforts to vaccinate detained immigrants against COVID-19. CBS News reports that 22,000 people in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody have received at least one dose, “a 167% increase from early July, when 8,221 doses had been administered.”
While this is vital in keeping immigrants safe, the preferred route has always been to allow them to shelter in their own homes. ICE has every ability to do this. But after court orders initially allowed some to do that, ICE again began to detain immigrants at alarming rates. With ICE having no nationwide vaccination plan in place at the time, positive cases skyrocketed, too. “More than 26,000 people were in detention last week, compared with about 14,000 in April,” The New York Times reported last month. “More than 7,500 new coronavirus cases have been reported in the centers over that same period.”
In a call to the Biden administration this past June, ACLU National Prison Project senior staff attorney Eunice Cho said that to continue to neglect people in ICE custody is “unacceptable and unconscionable, especially at a time where there is ample vaccine availability.” For months, ICE’s vaccination “plan” was to just let the states figure it out for themselves, which predictably had messy results. While detained immigrants in California became eligible for the vaccine in March, advocates were at that same time struggling to protect detained immigrants in New York. “You’re doing nothing to get them the vaccine,” Mother Jones reported one federal judge told officials in March. “Nothing. Zero.” Yup, and yup.
“Vaccination inside ICE detention centers increased after Judge Jesus Bernal of the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles directed the agency in late June to offer vaccines to all detained immigrants with chronic medical conditions or those over the age of 55—a plan government lawyers initially said was ‘not logistically possible,’” CBS News reported. $8.3 billion in annual funding and it can’t figure out how to distribute a vaccine that’s now commonly available in your local CVS on a walk-in basis? Right.
But while more immigrants in ICE custody are finally getting protected, CBS News reports that about 6,000 so far have declined the vaccination. This is not a total surprise, considering ICE’s history of medical malpractice. “They may see little reason to trust the same people who are imprisoning them in inhumane conditions without even adequate medical care to begin with,” Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Benjamin Salk told CBS News.
But, ICE also appears to be doing little to nothing to inform detained immigrants of even the very basics about the vaccine, experts said. This could be contributing significantly to the refusal numbers.
“Often what I hear and see from patients is that there will be big, large-scale offerings, where a whole housing area will be told, ‘take it or leave it,'” epidemiologist Homer Venters told CBS News. “That is one approach that results in some people getting vaccinated. But there are a lot of people who just have basic questions about the vaccine, the safety or about their own health that require counseling.” They don’t appear to be getting that at all.
“To quell vaccine misinformation and fear, Venters said immigrants in ICE detention should be allowed to have one-on-one sessions with doctors and community advocates,” the report continued. “They should also receive information about the benefits of the vaccine in languages they understand, he noted.” That’s an incredibly important note, as many asylum-seekers may only speak an indigenous language. “Yet although DHS comes into contact with the broadest range of foreign-language speakers of any federal agency, it lags far behind in providing real-time interpretation for many of the people placed most at risk when their needs are ignored,” the Center for American Progress said in 2019.
It still needs to be repeated that the best way to keep immigrants safe is to not have them locked up in harmful detention facilities in the first place. Recall that when government officials have been asked under oath if they’d put their own family members in these facilities, they refused to directly answer.
“Fiscal Year 2020 was the deadliest year in ICE detention in 15 years,” the ACLU said in April. “Last year alone, we saw reports of increased use of force, solitary confinement, patterns of sexual abuse, forced sterilization, and an utter failure to protect people from COVID-19. ICE’s extreme recklessness in handling the COVID-19 virus showed the blatant disregard it had for the health and well-being of detained people, as well as the extent to which it was willing to lie or obfuscate to avoid accountability.”
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