COVID-19 outbreak at ICE detention center

22 detainees at Batavia facility have tested positive; the remainder being held have been tested. This is the second outbreak at the facility since the pandemic began.

A COVID-19 outbreak has infected 22 immigrants held at the ICE detention facility in Batavia and prompted the testing of all others being held there.

The first positive test result was reported Feb. 11. Half of the 26 people held in that section of the facility subsequently tested positive. Testing confirmed nine more cases in a separate unit. 

The disclosures were made as part of a status report submitted Tuesday to U.S. Western District Court Judge Lawrence Vilardo, who previously ordered a strengthening of health and safety measures.

Adam Khalil, the assistant U.S. attorney representing the government, said all 180 detainees have been tested. Results for 171 are expected by Friday, he said. 

It’s unclear if staff at the facility — federal employees, as well as private-sector contractors — will be tested. Vilardo requested clarification. 

“If I have to order that, maybe I will order that,” he said of staff testing. 

Vilardo has received periodic reports on conditions at the Batavia facility since last spring. They’re the result of a lawsuit filed by 23 detainees contending they were at risk of complications from COVID-19. 

The plaintiffs requested emergency release while their immigration status was decided. Vilardo didn’t grant releases but demanded increased health and safety measures and progress reports.

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This is the second outbreak at the detention center. Tests revealed 49 positives last spring. The total eventually reached 55.

Jennifer Connor, executive director of Justice for Migrant Families WNY, an advocacy organization for Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees, said the facility’s conditions and health care were worthy of criticism prior to the pandemic. The coronavirus has only heightened concerns.

“This whole system is a failure,” she said. 

The organization remains concerned about the use of solitary confinement to segregate the sick and the transfers of people in and out of Batavia from other ICE facilities, increasing the risk of spreading the virus. Khalil, the federal attorney, told Vilardo that one detainee said some people didn’t report feeling sick last week for fear they would be segregated in solitary confinement.

The facility can hold up to 650 people, most of whom are awaiting an administrative law judge’s decision on their immigration case.

ICE denied an interview request from Investigative Post, but said in a prepared statement: “The practice of taking some detainees to the nearest mass transit location remains unchanged, and is consistent with other agencies’ practices (local sheriff’s office and the state Dept of Corrections use the same location). ICE continues to follow the CDC guidelines regarding recommended COVID practices, to that end detainees are given PPE and have access to soap/water/sanitizer.”

ICE has not released a vaccination plan for any of its detention facilities. By contrast, the Federal Bureau of Prisons expects to vaccinate at least half its inmates and staff this month.

The New York Civil Liberties Union, which represents some ICE detainees in Batavia, called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo Wednesday to release a vaccination plan for the facility.

State officials don’t have jurisdiction to intercede at federal facilities. But about 20 percent of those detained by ICE in New York State are held at local facilities where ICE leases space, according to the latest public data available through Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Clearinghouse.

Health officials in the state have pledged equity and transparency as guiding principles for their program, the letter noted.

“The safety of individuals detained and employed at (the detention center) depends on your living up to those commitments,” the letter said.