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© 2017 Mitch Blunt for Human Rights Watch

As people across the United States prepared for Memorial Day last month, a second person in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody died of complications from Covid-19.

Santiago Baten-Oxlaj, 34, from Guatemala, passed away at the Piedmont Regional Hospital in Georgia on Sunday, May 24. According to ICE, he had been hospitalized since April 17 after being transferred from the Stewart Detention Center.

Baten-Oxlaj’s death follows the passing of Carlos Escobar-Mejia, 57, a Salvadoran who had lived in the United States for 40 years before being detained at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego. The Intercept reported that others detained with him said that Escobar-Mejia was not hospitalized despite being obviously very ill for days. CoreCivic, which operates both the Stewart and Otay Mesa detention centers, disputes this characterization and has provided details about their health and safety precautions, saying they have “rigorously followed the guidance of local, state and federal health authorities as well as our government partners,” even prior to confirmed cases. 

Baten-Oxlaj and Escobar-Mejia were two of the currently 818 people in ICE custody confirmed to have Covid-19, according to ICE. This number is likely an undercount, as only 3,113 people have been tested – about ten percent of the detained population as of May 30. Previously, ICE had reported higher numbers because ICE does not include in its official count people who previously tested positive for Covid-19 and were returned to the general population or are no longer in ICE custody.

The Department of Homeland Security’s own medical experts have shared concerns about conditions in detention centers posing an “imminent risk to the health and safety of immigrant detainees.” A recent study published in the Journal of Urban Health projected that 72 percent of those locked up in immigration detention would be infected with the coronavirus 90 days after a center had five infected cases. They called this scenario “optimistic.”

As we recently documented in a report with the American Civil Liberties Union and National Immigrant Justice Center, people in ICE detention facilities are held in inhumane, unsanitary, and dangerous conditions, and access to medical care is historically paltry – even before the pandemic.

According to ICE, the agency has released over 900 people in response to the pandemic, in addition to several hundred more that have been released under court order, but that number remains miniscule in comparison to the 25,421 people in custody as of May 30. The Department of Homeland Security should promptly release substantial numbers of people from immigration detention to reduce the population to prevent further spread of Covid-19 and needless deaths.

Congress should demand transparency from ICE and require that it release detailed reports on investigations into these deaths, as well as push ICE to release more people. As Congress negotiates ICE’s budget for fiscal year 2021, Congress should shift funding from detention to community-based programs as an alternative to detention. State-level officials should exercise their public health authority to press for people’s release and to stop transferring people recently released from prisons and jails into ICE custody.

Given ICE’s track record, the deaths of people in detention was sadly predictable. But further deaths are preventable.

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