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Untested Asylum Seekers In ICE Detention Centers Pose New Health Risk Among Delta Outbreak

A satellite image of Pine Prairie Ice Processing Center in Pine Prairie, Louisiana.
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A satellite image of Pine Prairie Ice Processing Center in Pine Prairie, Louisiana.

This story is the product of a collaboration with the Documenting COVID-19 project at Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation.

Asylum seekers are being cycled through Louisiana and Mississippi federal detention facilities without being tested for the coronavirus or are not getting their test results before being released, advocates and those released from custody say, creating a growing public health risk in two states struggling with rising COVID-19 cases and middling vaccination rates.

At least some of those seeking asylum in the U.S., recently pouring in from Cuba, Haiti and Venezuela, among other countries, also have not been vaccinated, either because some weren’t offered a dose or refused to get one, according to advocates and written testimonials of asylum seekers provided to the Brown Institute for Media Innoviation’s Documenting COVID-19 project and WWNO.

For months, hundreds of detainees have been shuffled between Louisiana’s eight detention centers and a regional Immigration and Customs Enforcement hub in Adams County, Mississippi, without getting tested, receiving COVID test results or the opportunity to receive the vaccine.

“They were transporting them by plane and by bus from the border to Adams County and they were COVID-positive,” said Elisabeth Grant-Gibson, co-founder of the Natchez Network and a member of the Louisiana Advocates for Immigrants in Detention, which organizes transportation for detainees once they are released. “They were not supposed to. They were supposed to be quarantined at the border if they were COVID positive.”

Once they arrive at the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez, asylum seekers are given so-called “credible fear tests” — interviews to determine if asylum seekers face the threat of persecution if they return to their home country — and are then transferred to a detention center in Louisiana, the state with the second-highest immigrant detention rate behind Texas.

But some detainees are being transferred to Louisiana facilities before they are given the chance to receive doses of the coronavirus vaccine, which are sometimes offered weeks apart. Some have received the Johnson and Johnson one-shot vaccine, which has reduced efficacy against the now-dominant Delta variant.

Others who have been offered the vaccine have turned it down due to widespread mistrust toward those offering it — namely the National Guard.

“I see a significant number of detainees who said they were offered the vaccine and didn’t get it because they were afraid to get it,” said Julie Ward, founder of Home is Here Nola, a community organization based in New Orleans that offers aid to asylum-seekers. “Or because they were advised by other detainees not to get it.”

Potentially making matters worse, ICE released several immigrants from detention in Louisiana and Mississippi this month.

In just four days, between July 12 and 16, the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez released 68 men, LaSalle ICE Processing Center in Jena released 90 men and women, Winn Correctional Center released 158 men and River Correctional Center released 131 men, according to advocates. These figures may not represent the full number of people released during that week, but advocates say prior to July detention centers were releasing detainees in much fewer numbers.

Local news sources have reported that 75 immigrants recently released from detention were dropped off at Monroe Regional Airport last week; another 80 from Haiti were taken to Shreveport; and more than 90 were transported to the Natchez Transit System bus station.

In response to questions, the Louisiana Department of Health said it has sent ICE facilities thousands of doses but it's unclear how many of them have been administered and not every facility reports back what they use.

“Our immigrant detainees are a highly vulnerable population, and it is in everyone’s interest that they have access to adequate COVID testing and vaccination,” a spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Health said in a statement. “The Department has been supporting ICE and other federal authorities with everything they need to protect this priority group, including vaccines and public health guidance to prevent and mitigate outbreaks.”

Media representatives from ICE did not respond to requests for comment.

Asylum seekers reported sickness and inability to get coronavirus tests

Over the past year, detainees in Louisiana and Mississippi facilities have reported inadequate medical care, a lack of social distancing and an inability to get tested for the virus when they feel sick, issues flagged in an inspector general report released earlier this month and by written testimonials.

In one case, an asylum seeker held at Jackson Parish Correctional Center, in northern Louisiana near the Arkansas border, said the facility had refused his request for a COVID-19 test despite a “fever, cough, throat pain, lack of smelling, lack of appetite,” he wrote.

In another case, a Cuban immigrant held at the Adams County Detention Center in Mississippi said he had not been tested, medicine had proved ineffective and “mi salud se deteriora por dia” — “my health is deteriorating every day.”

In another, an immigrant transferred between two Louisiana ICE processing centers — Pine Prairie and LaSalle — said he had requested a COVID-19 test after being exposed to someone who was positive and was denied. “We live in a very crowded housing unit, no social distances [sic], most officers do not put on mask, they give us masks once a week,” he wrote.

Others say they have been tested for the virus but infrequently; sometimes never get their test results back; and are denied tests when they feel sick or are exposed to those with COVID.

“I was swabbed for COVID19 test in Pine Prairie and I asked for result they never gave me, I also requested of a [sic] COVID19 test after being exposed to somebody who was positive and they denied,” another asylum seeker wrote.

The accounts from asylum seekers are drawn from surveys circulated and collected over the past year by a Mississippi-based immigration advocate and shared with the Documenting COVID-19 project. All of the surveys included full names and “A-Numbers,” or Alien Registration Numbers, of each ICE detainee, some of which were confirmed in federal detainee lookup tools.

Inspection found little to no enforcement of coronavirus protocols in Adams County Detention Center

Before the vaccine rollout, the Adams County Detention Center had already struggled with protecting detainees from COVID-19 transmission. The Office of Inspector General conducted an unannounced inspection at the detention center between January and February 2021. Video surveillance showed that many detainees were not wearing masks or social distancing at the time, with little to no enforcement from staff members standing nearby, according to the inspector general report.

The inspection also found that the center’s medical unit poorly documented detainee sick calls and follow-ups.

Earlier this month, Ward’s group warned both the Louisiana Department of Health and the New Orleans Health Department about the potential for the virus to spread in communities where asylum seekers were being released, including New Orleans, according to emails obtained by the Documenting COVID-19 project.

And this week, the Louisiana Department of Health reported the most coronavirus cases in the state since early February, more than 1,500 a day. Health officials said that the so-called Delta variant, the more-transmissible strain that originated in India, is surging through communities throughout Louisiana.

Meanwhile, the influx of asylum seekers — including some entering communities unvaccinated and untested — pose an additional public health risk, experts say.

Adams County, Mississippi, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana — two areas where asylum seekers have been dropped off -— are both experiencing an uptick in coronavirus cases. Adams County was reporting a test positivity rate of 18.1% according to the latest report from the Mississippi State Department of Health. In East Baton Rouge Parish, the positivity rate was 9.3% according to the latest report — a more than 30% jump from the week prior. Vaccine rates in both areas are low as well, with 40% and 36% in East Baton Rouge Parish and Adams County, respectively.

“They’ve slipped me COVID-positive people twice without warning."

ICE has been using the Adams County Detention Center in Adams County, Mississippi, as a transfer facility for detainees in Louisiana, who are oftentimes transferred quickly before vaccines are offered.

Earlier this month, the federal Adams County Detention Center had 52 detainees in isolation because they were confirmed to have coronavirus, bringing the cumulative number of confirmed cases in the facility to 747, according to ICE data.

As of early July, Adams County Detention Center had an average population of just under 600 people — a number that has been increasing for months, according to TRAC, a research group affiliated with Syracuse University.

According to Ariana Sawyer, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, transfers of asylum seekers pose a threat, especially in states along the southern border. “As ICE routinely fails to provide proper health care, involuntary transfers shouldn’t be happening and certainly not during a pandemic,” she said.

Sawyer said some of vaccine skepticism among detainees may come from information barriers. “There isn’t always a large effort to make sure asylum seekers understand their options and language can be a barrier,” he said. “ICE does have a responsibility to offer the vaccine and explain why they should be taking it.”

The release of detainees also spurs a host of problems for both those being released and the communities in which they dropped in, advocates say. Oftentimes, detainees are dropped off without warning in large numbers in rural communities without the resources to handle them.

On July 15, the Winn Parish Correctional Center sent four buses with approximately 45 people on each to the Shreveport bus station, according to Grant-Gibson. The following Saturday, 65 from the River Detention Center were dropped at the Baton Rouge bus station.

Grant-Gibson said that coronavirus tests are typically given on the day of release. However, she has twice picked up people who had tested positive for the virus shortly before they were released.

“They’ve slipped me COVID-positive people twice without warning,” Grant Gibson said. “They released them with a positive test and I don’t think there’s a law saying they can’t release them with a positive test, but we have said that we will not take them if they tested positive.”

According to Grant-Gibson, the detention centers usually notify the state and call an ambulance for detainees who test positive before release. Those who test positive are then taken to Chicot State Park in Evangeline Parish, Louisiana, where there are currently about 40 campers in place for quarantine. There, they are loaned a smartphone for their stay as they shelter in place for two weeks.

Bobbi-Jeanne Misick is the justice, race and equity reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson. She is also an Ida B. Wells Fellow with Type Investigations at Type Media Center.

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