Sepia-toned photo of the exterior of Northwest ICE Processing Center.

COVID-19 Outbreak at ICE Detention Center Continues

by Luna Reyna

As the delta variant spreads across the country, transfers to Northwest ICE Processing Center are spreading the virus to some of our state’s most vulnerable.

In 2018 the University of Washington Center for Human Rights (UWCHR) began collecting data on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) flights with the assistance of Yakima Immigrant Response Network. These flights, also called ICE Air, were once carried out by the U.S. Marshals. Today, they are carried out by private businesses through private deportation contracts for ICE that are worth millions. According to Phil Neff, project coordinator for the UWCHR, the data revealed that nearly 600 people transferred to Northwest ICE Processing Center (NWIPC) in June 2021 — the most transfers from ICE Air to the facility since June 2014. With these transfers came the transmission of COVID-19, resulting in the worst outbreak of the virus the facility has ever seen. 

According to the Tacoma-Pierce County Department of Health, an outbreak is considered two cases within 14 days of each other. NWIPC reported 32 cases in under 14 days. According to ICE reports, each new case was a transfer from the southern border. “My understanding is that most of them are asylum seekers …” Neff explained. “Under human rights terms, asylum seekers shouldn’t be indefinitely detained.” This number has only increased since June. At least 150 people, including nine guards and one medical personnel, have tested positive. 

Under former President Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” protocol, asylum seekers were turned away at the border and told to remain in Mexico until their court dates. According to Human Rights Watch, this policy exposed immigrants fleeing the trauma and violence of their home countries to rape, kidnapping, extortion, assault, and additional psychological trauma in Mexico. Currently, President Biden has maintained Title 42, a section of the Public Health Safety Act that Trump enacted in order to block all migrants, including asylum seekers, from entering the country — an action that civil rights activists maintain is illegal. 

What this appears to have created is an influx of illegal border crossings. According to information shared with Reuters in June, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) arrests are on track to be the highest in over 20 years, with more than 1 million people arrested at the border. According to David Yost, a public affairs officer for ICE, over 85% of ICE detainees are transferred from CBP arrests. Yost went on to claim that “it would not be accurate to characterize all transfers as asylum seekers, as I cannot speak to the immigration status of an individual while they are in immigration court proceedings, which is a part of the DOJ and not ICE.” 

When asked what precautions are still in place to keep those detained from being infected or from spreading the virus, Yost maintained that “ICE has taken proactive measures to tailor conditions across its detention network to maintain safe and secure environments for detainees and staff,” including “reducing the overall detained population, providing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) to all staff and detainees, suspending social visitation, and maximizing social distancing practices with staggered meals and recreation times.”

Migrants coming off of an October 2019 ICE Air flight in Washington to be transferred to NWIPC. Photo provided by Danielle Surkatty with YIRA.

According to someone detained at NWIPC, who we will call Howard in order to maintain their anonymity, this statement is a farce. In a phone interview, Howard explained that there are three people per every four-person cell in a unit with two bunk beds only a few feet from each other. “Right now we’re pretty much crowded and we don’t have that much social distance,” Howard explained. Not only is Howard’s unit unable to social distance, but according to him, GEO Group (NWIPC operator) officers are still not consistently wearing masks or following the necessary cleaning protocols. The staggered meal times and recreation are also a point of contention for Howard because when detainees go to court, all units are sent together and are in close contact with one another. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on the general public, migrants incarcerated at NWIPC have continued to be subject to persistent human rights violations including unsafe and unsanitary living conditions and improper medical care. Immigration and human rights activists, including grassroots organizations like La Resistencia, have been protesting the incarceration and conditions at the NWIPC in Tacoma for many years. The pandemic made the calls to “Free Them All” all the more urgent considering these facilities are known to be breeding grounds for disease.

By mid March, around 200 people were still detained at NWIPC. Recently, there were almost three times as many people detained. Yost avoided answering questions about the number of people detained at the facility, saying that, due to the increase in transfers to NWIPC because of the increase in CBP arrests, “any numbers provided to you are inaccurate in either case of an increase or decrease once they are reported by you.”

On March 30, the Washington State Senate voted to ban private, for-profit prisons and detention centers. GEO Group, the facility operator and the largest private prison company in the country, will continue operating in Tacoma until the current contract ends in 2025. In May 2019, the Washington State Legislature passed the Keep Washington Working Act, which it would seem should have ended the collaboration between state and federal agencies that makes these transfers possible. According to Howard, there are still transfers of people from prisons to the NWIPC.

The Liberation Not Deportation Coalition called on Gov. Inslee to “end the Department of Corrections to ICE pipeline.” 

“We demand the Governor end the practice of information sharing between DOC and ICE,” a petition signed by over 60 community organizations says. “This practice facilitates transfers to facilities Washington has now banned from continuing to operate in our state. The DOC-ICE collaboration currently feeds Washington residents into the very cages the Governor has just declared jeopardize the lives of the people of our region.” 

According to a La Resistencia press release, “The demands from people in detention continue to be that the Department of Health be granted access to the facility, that COVID-19 tests be done before transfers between units, access to the vaccine for people detained, plans for release in place, and to ultimately free everyone at the border and stop all transfers into NWDC [the former name of NWIPC].”

Migrants coming off of an October 2019 ICE Air flight in Washington to be transferred to NWIPC. Photo provided by Danielle Surkatty with YIRA.

As the delta variant of the coronavirus continues to spread, Washington hospitals are filling up with patients more severely ill than with previous variants of the virus. Transfers from one detention facility to another have been proven to have deadly impacts on the facilities and their surrounding communities. With the data available, the desperate pleas from those detained, and the legislation that has passed in the last few years in opposition to detention, activists and organizers expected swift action from Gov. Inslee and other State representatives who advocated for the legislation but there has been none. Meanwhile, those detained at NWIPC are fearful. 

“My concern is about my safety and my health — how it’s going to affect me and the people that are around me,” Howard explained.

Luna Reyna is a South Seattle writer and broadcaster whose work has identified, supported, and promoted the voices of the systematically excluded in service of liberation and advancing justice. She was Crosscut’s Indigenous Affairs Reporter and her work has appeared in the South Seattle Emerald, Prism Reports, and Talk Poverty. Luna is proud of her Little Shell Chippewa and Mexican heritage and is passionate about reporting that sheds light on colonial white supremacist systems of power.

📸 Featured Image: Northwest ICE Processing Center (formerly known as Northwest Detention Center). (Photo: Sharon Ho Chang)

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