DHS medical experts again sound alarm about risky ICE detention, urge access to boosters



“Booster vaccinations are now the standard and are a top priority of the federal government’s response to present and future COVID threats,” Drs. Scott Allen and Josiah “Jody” Rich of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (DHS CRCL) tell the Biden administration. But they write that DHS’ policies do not include recommendations for boosters. NPR has previously reported that officials have been secretive about initial doses as well.

“In contrast, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) guidelines for COVID issued at roughly the same time do include recommendations for booster vaccinations,” the two physicians note. 

Immigration officials have tried to counter these facts by claiming that all immigrants have to do is ask for a dose. If only asking for and getting medical care while in federal immigration detention were that easy. But ICE also appears to be doing little to nothing to inform immigrants of even the very basics about the vaccine, experts have saidAllen and Rich make clear that education must be a part of ICE’s plan.

“Vaccination in high-risk settings is most effective when rates of vaccine uptake in the population are high,” they continue. “Accordingly, DHS must make every effort to not only provide immediate and easy access to vaccine and boosters in all immigration detention settings, but to also provide ongoing education and counseling to detainees and staff to address lingering confusion and questions regarding the safety and efficacy of vaccinations and boosters.”

“Since the start of the pandemic, ICE has reported over 24,000 COVID-19 infections among immigrants in its custody, as well as 10 coronavirus-related deaths,” CBS News reports. “Earlier this month, Elba Maria Centeno Briones, a 37-year-old asylum-seeker from Nicaragua, died in ICE custody after testing positive for the coronavirus.” At least one of the immigrants who filed a recent civil rights complaint said they witnessed a detention staffer ordered to stay at work despite “looking visibly sick.”

“It is unconscionable that DHS, nearly two years since the beginning of the pandemic, continues to endanger the lives of immigrants, workers and the public by failing to implement measures and enforce practices that protect against the spread of COVID,” said Government Accountability Project senior counsel Dana Gold. The organization is representing the two physicians, who initially spoke out last summer.

“We hope that the Department will finally heed the warnings and recommendations of its own medical experts—echoed by the CDC—and ensure that immigrants and workers alike receive unimpeded access to vaccination and boosters to prevent further unnecessary illnesses and death,” Gold continued.

Of course, ICE doesn’t have to mass detain immigrants in the first place. It can, and should, mirror Federal Bureau of Prisons release efforts, experts say. “The longer the Biden administration allows these detention facilities to operate, the longer this pandemic will rage on,” immigration public defender Sophia Gurulé and public health expert Abdullah Shihipar recently wrote. “Just as it was clear to those paying close attention to the conditions in ICE centers in March 2020, it remains clear now: If we are to effectively combat the virus, we must free all incarcerated people.”


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