ICE ha fallado constantemente en contener enfermedades contagiosas, según nuestros análisis. Es un peligro para el público.

23 Mar

por J. David McSwane

ProPublica es un medio independiente y sin ánimo de lucro que produce periodismo de investigación en pro del interés público. Suscríbete para recibir sus historias en español por correo electrónico.

El coronavirus está amenazando las instalaciones del Servicio de Cumplimiento de Inmigración y Aduanas abarrotadas con largas historias de mal manejo de las enfermedades infecciosas que pueden propagarse rápidamente fuera de sus paredes, encontró un análisis de ProPublica de miles de páginas de reportes de muertes.

La población detenida por ICE presenta un peligro específico en estos momentos en que las comunidades se enfrentan a la nueva enfermedad. El análisis encontró que ICE ha fallado repetidamente en seguir las reglas establecidas que tienen la finalidad de contener las enfermedades transmisibles dentro de sus instalaciones de detención, las cuales pueden convertirse en atmósfera propicia para enfermedades. Cuando los guardias y las enfermeras se van de las instalaciones a sus casas, esos brotes se pueden propagar.

En el Centro de Detención Aurora, una instalación suburbana de ICE en Denver, se sabe que 10 detenidos se encuentran ahora en cuarentena por posible exposición al coronavirus. Un miembro del personal de ICE de un centro de detención de Nueva Jersey tuvo un resultado positivo de la prueba.

El año pasado, más de 5,200 detenidos estuvieron en cuarentena mientras que ICE trataba de contener un brote de paperas y varicela. Un análisis realizado el año pasado por los Centros para el Control y la Prevención de Enfermedades determinó que los casos de paperas alcanzaron el máximo al mismo tiempo que la administración de Trump encerró mucha más gente en espacios reducidos. La mayoría de estos detenidos se enfermaron en custodia federal, no antes, determinaron los CDC.

Los problemas con las enfermedades transmisibles dentro de las instalaciones de ICE se han ido intensificando por años. ProPublica revisó más de 70 reportes que detallan muertes de los detenidos durante la última década y encontró que el personal, con frecuencia, no sigue las reglas estrictas para hacer pruebas de detección de enfermedades contagiosas.

La respuesta a la tuberculosis, una enfermedad respiratoria que se puede propagar fácilmente en espacios reducidos y cerrados, es una indicación sólida de cómo responderán a otras enfermedades contagiosas, dicen los expertos médicos.

En una docena de casos que revisó ProPublica, los expertos médicos que fueron llamados para investigar la muerte de un detenido de ICE dieron la alerta de que el personal no siguió las normas aceptadas en el ámbito nacional.

ProPublica identificó seis casos en los que no se abordaron los riesgos de las enfermedades transmisibles, como en el caso de los auxiliares de enfermería con poca capacitación formal que esperaron demasiado tiempo para notificar a los médicos acerca de los pacientes enfermos; posteriormente se reconoció que este fue un factor contribuyente de las muertes de los inmigrantes.

El Dr. Marc Stern, un experto médico que solía inspeccionar las instalaciones de ICE como contratista del Departamento de Seguridad Nacional, dijo que las condiciones de hacinamiento en los reclusorios los hacen objetivos principales de los brotes.

“Mientras más gente tengan, menor la posibilidad del distanciamiento social”, dijo Stern. “Estos eventos van a ser más difíciles de controlar ya que el personal no puede ir a trabajar porque se enferman o tienen que quedarse en casa con sus hijos”.

Durante estas fechas del año pasado, después del tercer brote en cuatro meses en el Centro de Detención Aurora, inclusive de paperas y varicela, Allison Hiltz, miembro del Consejo de la Ciudad de Aurora se hartó de que la compañía de gestión privada del reclusorio no notificara a la ciudad.

“No informaban acerca de las enfermedades transmisibles en el lugar, y eso incluyó la varicela que tuvieron un par de meses antes”, dijo Hiltz.

Hiltz puso presión a través de una ordenanza de la ciudad que requiere que GEO Group, un contratista grande de ICE, reporte las inquietudes de salud pública al departamento de bomberos local. Al mismo tiempo, Jason Crow, un congresista principiante, exigió tener acceso a la instalación y que ICE llevara a cabo inspecciones mensuales. Tan solo en febrero, una de esas inspecciones encontró que las enfermedades siguen haciendo estragos en la instalación: 68 personas en cuarentena con la gripe y otras 70 con paperas. Pablo E. Paez, vicepresidente ejecutivo, dijo que la compañía sigue las mejores prácticas para controlar las enfermedades.

En medio de la pandemia mundial de coronavirus, GEO dijo que a ninguna de las personas en cuarentena en Aurora se le ha confirmado la enfermedad.

Pero, Hiltz dijo que GEO debe intensificar la vigilancia del virus. “Si vemos lo que está pasando ahora, no hay vacuna para esto”, dijo ella. “Solo hace falta una persona con el virus en una instalación para propagarse bastante rápido y no hay inmunidad para los empleados que vienen y van y llevan a sus hijos a la escuela y van de compras de comestibles”.

En Aurora y por todo el país, ICE ha luchado repetidamente por contener enfermedades transmisibles que se pueden propagar de maneras similares al coronavirus, demostraron los reportes de muertes revisados. Los informes se enfocaron en los historiales médicos de los detenidos, pero no dejan claro si estos infectaron a otras personas.

Durante un examen médico en enero de 2018, el detenido Yulio Castro-Garrido, que trabajó en la cocina del Centro de Detención Stewart en Georgia, tenía fiebre, palpitaciones rápidas, tos y goteo nasal, síntomas de la gripe. No obstante, el personal médico no le ordenó que se quedara en su celda y dejaron que regresara a la cocina donde podría haber estado “transmitiendo una enfermedad contagiosa”.

Murió al siguiente mes, a la edad de 33, de pulmonía y la gripe.

Más adelante en 2018, el personal de evaluación médica del Centro de Detención Otay Mesa en California hizo una radiografía de una mujer mexicana de 62 años y encontraron evidencia de tuberculosis. En vez de aislarla inmediatamente, permitieron que Agustina Ramírez-Arreola tuviera contacto cercano con otros detenidos en las instalaciones por casi tres horas.

Ella murió dos meses más tarde.

Los demócratas en Washington han criticado el registro irregular de ICE en cuanto al manejo de las enfermedades infecciosas, citando inquietudes de que el hacinamiento en el marco de la política de cero tolerancia de Trump intensifica el riesgo de una propagación viral mortal.

ICE no respondió a las preguntas que envío ProPublica el martes.

En su sitio web, la agencia dice que está monitoreando la propagación del COVID-19 y que sus epidemiólogos están haciendo seguimiento del brote y trabajando con el personal del Cuerpo de Servicios de Salud de ICE.

“ICE continúa incorporando las pautas de los CDC relacionadas con el COVID-19, los cuales se basan en los protocolos ya establecidos de vigilancia y gestión de enfermedades infecciosas que utiliza actualmente el organismo. Además, ICE colabora activamente con los socios de salud local y estatal para determinar si alguno de los detenidos requiere pruebas o monitoreo adicional para combatir la propagación del virus”, dice el sitio web.

Paez, el vocero de GEO, dijo que la compañía está pendiente del nuevo coronavirus y colocó a los 10 detenidos en Aurora “bajo observación”. Él no dijo si GEO les había hecho pruebas a otras personas bajo el cuidado de la compañía.

“Para ser sumamente precavido, la semana pasada se puso en observación a un grupo de 10 personas como precaución basada en las declaraciones de un visitante del centro” dijo Paez. “Ninguna de esas personas han mostrado síntomas de COVID-19. En este momento, todos los centros de procesamiento de ICE suspendieron las visitas no legítimas”.

Mientras tanto, los abogados de derechos civiles han presentado peticiones ante la administración de Trump, además de encausar una demanda el lunes argumentando por la liberación de los detenidos vulnerables que podrían enfermarse dentro del sistema de detención de inmigrantes con condiciones de hacinamiento en el país.

Elizabeth Jordan, una abogada de Denver que representa a los detenidos de Aurora no ha podido reunirse con sus clientes durante la propagación del coronavirus. Una demanda presentada el año pasado por Jordan y un equipo de abogados de inmigración acusaron a ICE de extensa negligencia y pésima atención médica.

“ICE manejó los brotes anteriores muy mal”, dijo Jordan. “Esto podría ser de órdenes de peor magnitud”.

En este momento, ella dijo, sus clientes tienen mayor probabilidad de enfermarse de alguien que traiga el virus a las instalaciones repletas.

“Ellos son blancos perfectos” dijo ella.


Dara Lind contribuyó al reportaje.

¿Tiene acceso a información sobre ICE que debería ser pública? Correo electrónico david.mcswane@propublica.org. Cómo enviar sugerencias y documentos a ProPublica de manera segura.

Immigration Courts Are Telling Employees to Come to Work — Ignoring Health Risks and Local Shelter-in-Place Orders

20 Mar

by Dara Lind

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

On Tuesday night — over a day after several Bay Area counties issued shelter-in-place orders barring most people from leaving their homes — the San Francisco immigration court sent an email to staff: Hearings were being postponed nationwide for most immigrants, so the court would be closed starting Wednesday. (The text of the email was provided to ProPublica.)

On Wednesday, however, employees were directed to get onto a conference call, according to two participants. There they were told the Tuesday night email was wrong. The court wasn’t closed. They would have to come into the office — or use their vacation time to stay home. When staff asked about the shelter-in-place orders, the response was that the Department of Justice, which runs immigration courts, took the position that those were local laws and didn’t apply to federal employees.

The Trump administration has reduced immigration court operations in the past week, by postponing hearings for non-detained immigrants and closing a handful of courts to the public. Those actions came after the unions representing immigration prosecutors and judges issued a rare public call for courts to close.

The reduced court operations came after weeks of employees raising concerns privately and, they say, receiving few and unhelpful answers. And because the closures are determined solely by whether a court is hearing cases of detained immigrants, rather than by the level of health peril, employees still feel they’re putting their health at risk every time they come into the office as instructed.

That’s the picture that emerges from interviews with 10 federal employees who work at immigration courts across the country. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity. Many said they had raised concerns internally about their exposure to COVID-19 to their managers or hadn’t been informed of potential exposures.

“When I signed up for this job, I thought it might be morally compromising at times,” one immigration court employee told ProPublica, “but I never thought it would be compromising of my health and safety.”

The Executive Office for Immigration Review, the DOJ agency that oversees immigration courts, told ProPublica that agency headquarters was responsible for deciding when courts closed, but it did not confirm or deny specifics of the employees’ allegations, saying, “We do not comment on internal communications or internal personnel operations.”

In Denver, one prosecutor interviewed by ProPublica was alarmed by a judge’s frequent coughs during a hearing last Friday. “Don’t mind my coughing,” the judge said, according to the prosecutor. “I don’t think it’s coronavirus.” The following Tuesday, the prosecutor noticed that the judge was out for the rest of the week and emailed a court staffer in concern: Was it the coronavirus? Should she be taking precautions? The staffer’s reply: For privacy reasons, the prosecutor’s questions couldn’t be answered.

Only after news broke to the public on Tuesday night that a judge at the Denver immigration court had been diagnosed with COVID-19 (the disease caused by the new coronavirus) did court officials follow up with the prosecutor and confirm her suspicions. Other attorneys the judge had been in close contact with were notified the next day. The court remained open through Thursday, when the entire building it was housed in was shut down for deep cleaning by the General Services Administration. (It’s currently set to reopen Monday.)

In New York, legal aid groups sent a letter to immigration court officials saying that two of their attorneys had symptoms of COVID-19 and a third had been exposed to someone who’d tested positive. All three attorneys had appeared in court the past week, and all had hearings scheduled the following day. The courts didn’t say anything to their employees about the letter, according to multiple sources.

Since taking office, the Trump administration has pressured the immigration courts to process as many immigrants as quickly as possible — pressuring judges to hear more cases and complete them within a year, and making it harder for immigrants or attorneys to postpone hearings. Now, they face a public health crisis that requires everyone to reduce person-to-person contact.

Immigration court workers have two concerns. The first is that the courts are often crowded and require close contact with members of the public. The second is that, like most employees of any type, especially those who take public transit, they are exposed every time they leave their homes to work.

Employees remain concerned about their exposure over the past few weeks, while courts were running as usual. Employees in New York and California — the states hardest hit by the pandemic to date — told ProPublica that their requests for “deep cleaning” were rejected by managers, and that they were bringing their own Clorox wipes and disinfectant spray to the office.

Most immigration court business happens in person. Even trying to postpone an immigration hearing (for example, due to illness) requires an attorney to file a paper form with a clerk. And if an immigrant doesn’t show up for a hearing, they’re at risk of getting ordered deported in absentia. In at least one New York court, according to two people who work there, the chief judge told employees Monday to issue absentia deportation orders if immigrants weren’t showing up, even if the coronavirus was the suspected cause.

Policies the Trump administration introduced before the COVID-19 pandemic put considerable pressure on judges and prosecutors not to allow immigrants to postpone their hearings. Judges face a “performance standard” of completing 80% of their cases within a year — a standard over 90% of judges don’t meet, according to the National Association of Immigration Judges. But the more than 150 judges who have been hired in the past two years are still in their probationary period, where they could be fired for failing to meet performance standards.

While many judges have been lenient in granting coronavirus-related postponements, others have not. Last week, according to one California immigration court employee, a judge took a break from a hearing to tell colleagues that the immigrant’s attorney claimed to be sick, but because he wasn’t coughing, the hearing would move forward.

One email sent by the chief prosecutor at the Miami court Tuesday, read to ProPublica, told prosecutors that if an immigrant or her attorney claimed to be sick, any postponement should be counted against the immigrant (preventing them from requesting another postponement). If the immigrant didn’t want to postpone, and the judge wasn’t willing to hold the hearing by phone, the prosecutor was instructed to contact her manager — who would assess the claim of illness himself before deciding what to do. (A call to the chief prosecutor in Miami was not immediately returned.)

Most communication, though, has been oral. In at least two courts, chief judges were asked to put policies in writing and declined.

Employees have been in the dark about who, exactly, is making the decisions about which courts are open and when employees are allowed to work from home or take leave to stay home. “The word is that it’s out of their hands. Everything is out of everybody’s hands,” Fanny Behar-Ostrow, president of the union representing immigration prosecutors, told ProPublica Wednesday. “I don’t know who’s making the calls, but they’re wrong.”

An email obtained by the Miami Herald, written by the assistant chief immigration judge in charge of the Miami immigration court on Wednesday, said that closure decisions were ultimately being made by “the White House” — something that employees at other courts also said their managers had suggested. But chief judges gave conflicting explanations about which decisions were subject to White House approval; one chief judge told employees that the White House had to be involved in decisions about remote work, while other chief judges made those decisions themselves.

It’s not clear who at the White House is involved or how. Immigration officials told the Herald that the ultimate decision was made by the Office of Management and Budget. However, according to the employees ProPublica spoke to, some immigration court officials used “White House” to refer to policies set by the Office of Personnel Management. The assistant chief immigration judge (the judge in charge of a given immigration court location) for one California court told employees on March 12 that she’d had a phone call with staff for Vice President Mike Pence, who’s running the official coronavirus task force.

But to many employees, the specter of “White House” involvement raised concerns that the administration’s immigration policy priorities were getting in the way of its public health obligations.

The Department of Justice and White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Judge Amiena Khan, speaking as the executive vice president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, told ProPublica on Wednesday that she was “pleased to see that the agency is taking the correct steps in the right direction.” But other employees, like the ones in San Francisco, retain acute concerns that simply showing up continues to put them at risk.

Employees have been told that courts are closing in full only if they exclusively hear “non-detained” cases — meaning all their hearings have been postponed for the next few weeks. At courts that hear cases of both detained and non-detained immigrants, all employees are expected to continue to work, even in the areas hardest hit by the pandemic.

Two employees noted to ProPublica that they had been deemed “nonessential” employees during the 2019 government shutdown, when their pay was at stake, but were now being treated as if they were essential and told to put their health at risk. “The government needs to decide,” one said. “Are we essential, or are we not?”

Some employees have been told they can take “annual leave” (vacation time) if they wish to stay home. But most junior attorneys at the DOJ, and many immigration prosecutors, don’t have much accumulated vacation time.

Many immigration judges have been staying home, either because of fear of contagion or child care needs. When a judge is absent, their docket is assigned to another judge. This week, that docket shuffling has gotten in the way of the DOJ’s efforts to wind down operations for “non-detained” cases. At one court that hears both types of cases, according to two employees who work there, none of the judges scheduled to hear detainees’ cases showed up on Wednesday — leading the rest of the judges, who were supposed to be shutting down their operations, to have to hear cases instead.

In theory, employees should be able to work remotely. But the crisis has exposed a nationwide laptop shortage at the Executive Office for Immigration Review. At some courts that have fully closed, employees have been told to wait at home and laptops will be mailed to them.

Where there aren’t enough laptops to go around, who gets to work from home is determined by seniority, not by health needs, according to several employees. Some courts have redistributed laptops from junior employees to senior ones.

At the Los Angeles court, some employees were given permission to work from home Monday and Tuesday. The court officially closed to the public Tuesday night. On Wednesday, according to one worker, employees were suddenly instructed to come into the office — where they were told to continue working, at their desks, until someone came by to take their laptops away so they could be given to immigration judges.


ICE Has Repeatedly Failed to Contain Contagious Diseases, Our Analysis Shows. It’s a Danger to the Public.

20 Mar

by J. David McSwane

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

The coronavirus is threatening crowded Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities with long histories of mishandling infectious diseases that can rapidly spread outside their walls, a ProPublica review of thousands of pages of death reports found.

The ICE population presents a particular danger as communities grapple with the novel disease. The analysis found that ICE has repeatedly failed to follow rules meant to contain communicable diseases inside its detention centers, which can become breeding grounds for illness. As guards and nurses leave facilities and go home, those outbreaks can spread.

At a suburban Denver ICE facility, the Aurora Detention Center, 10 detainees have now been quarantined for potential exposure to the coronavirus. An ICE staffer at a New Jersey detention center has tested positive.

Last year, more than 5,200 detainees were quarantined as ICE tried to contain mumps and chickenpox. An analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year found mumps cases spiked at the same time the Trump administration packed more and more people into close quarters. Most of those detainees got sick while in federal custody, not before, the CDC found.

Problems with handling communicable illnesses inside packed ICE facilities have festered for years. ProPublica reviewed more than 70 reports detailing the circumstances around detainee deaths over the last decade and found medical staff often don’t follow strict rules for testing contagious diseases.

The response to tuberculosis, a respiratory illness that can spread easily in confined and crowded spaces, is a strong indication of how they’ll respond to other contagious diseases, medical experts say.

In a dozen cases ProPublica reviewed, medical experts who were called in to investigate a death in ICE custody raised alarms that staff had failed to follow nationally accepted standards.

ProPublica identified six cases where failures to address communicable disease risks — such as practical nurses with little formal training waiting far too long to notify doctors of ill patients — were later found to have been contributing factors in the deaths of immigrants.

Dr. Marc Stern, a medical expert who used to inspect ICE facilities as a contractor for the Department of Homeland Security, said the crowded conditions in prisons make them prime targets for outbreaks.

“The more people you have, the less social distancing you can do,” Stern said. “These events are going to be harder to manage as staff can’t get to work because they get sick or they have to stay home with their kids.”

This time last year, after the third outbreak in four months at the Aurora Detention Center, including mumps and chickenpox, Aurora City Council member Allison Hiltz was fed up with the facility’s private management company for not alerting the city.

“They were not reporting their communicable diseases, and that included chickenpox that they had a couple of months prior to that,” Hiltz said.

She pushed through a city ordinance requiring GEO Group, a large ICE contractor, to report public health concerns to the local fire department. At the same time, a rookie Democratic congressman, Jason Crow, demanded access to the facility and called for ICE to conduct monthly inspections. As recently as February, one of those inspections found sickness still raging in the facility, with 68 people quarantined with the flu and an additional 70 with mumps. GEO Executive Vice President Pablo E. Paez said the company follows best practices in managing diseases.

Amid the global coronavirus pandemic, GEO said none of the quarantined detainees in Aurora have been confirmed as sick with the disease.

But Hiltz said GEO must step up its monitoring of the virus.“If you look at what’s happening now, there’s no vaccine for this,” she said. “It only takes one person in a facility like that to spread pretty quickly, and there’s no immunity for the employees who are coming and going and taking their kids to school and grocery shopping.”

In Aurora and across the country, ICE has repeatedly struggled to contain communicable diseases that can spread in ways similar to the coronavirus, the review of death reports found. The reports focused on the medical histories of detainees but do not make clear whether they infected others.

During a medical check up in January 2018, detainee Yulio Castro-Garrido, who worked in the kitchen at the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia, had a fever, rapid pulse, cough and runny nose — flu-like symptoms. But medical staff did not order him to stay in his cell and let him return to the kitchen where, medical investigators later wrote, he could have been “transmitting contagious illness.”

He died the next month, at age 33, of pneumonia and the flu.

Later in 2018, medical screeners at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in California took an X-ray of a 62-year-old woman from Mexico and found evidence of TB. Instead of immediately isolating her, the facility allowed Augstina Ramirez-Arreola to have close contact with other detainees for nearly three hours.

She died two months later.

Democrats in Washington have criticized ICE’s spotty record of handling infectious diseases, citing concerns that overcrowding amid Trump’s zero-tolerance policy heightens the risk of a deadly viral spread.

ICE did not respond to questions sent by ProPublica on Tuesday.

On its website, the agency says it has monitored the spread of COVID-19 and has epidemiologists tracking the outbreak and working with staff in its ICE Health Service Corps.

“ICE continues to incorporate CDC’s COVID-19 guidance, which is built upon the already established infectious disease monitoring and management protocols currently in use by the agency. In addition, ICE is actively working with state and local health partners to determine if any detainee requires additional testing or monitoring to combat the spread of the virus,” the website says.

Paez, the GEO spokesperson, said the company is watching out for the new coronavirus and placed the 10 Aurora detainees “under observation.” He did not say whether GEO has tested others under the company’s care.

“Last week, in an abundance of caution, a cohort of 10 individuals was placed under observation as a precaution based on statements made by a visitor to the facility,” Paez said. “None of those individuals have exhibited any COVID-19 symptoms. At this time, all ICE processing centers have discontinued non-legal visitation.”

Meanwhile, civil rights attorneys have petitioned the Trump administration and filed a lawsuit Monday arguing for the release of vulnerable detainees who could potentially get sick inside the country’s crowded immigrant detention system.

Elizabeth Jordan, a Denver-based lawyer who represents Aurora detainees, hasn’t been able to meet with clients as the coronavirus has spread. A lawsuit filed last year by Jordan and a team of immigration lawyers accused ICE of widespread neglect and shoddy medical care.

“With the previous outbreaks, ICE handled it very poorly,” Jordan said. “This has the potential to be orders of magnitude worse.”

At this point, she said, her clients are more likely to get sick from someone bringing the virus into the packed facilities.

“They are sitting ducks,” she said.


Dara Lind contributed reporting.

Do you have access to information about ICE that should be public? Email david.mcswane@propublica.org. Here’s how to send tips and documents to ProPublica securely.