Whistleblowers Push Biden to Vaccinate More Immigrants in Detention

Three whistleblowers wrote a letter to Congress urging President Biden’s administration to increase its efforts to vaccinate migrants who are being held in detention in the United States.

The three doctors who authored the letter sent to Congress on Friday — Scott A. Allen, Pamela McPherson, and Josiah “Jody” Rich — work as medical and mental health subject matter experts for the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. In the letter, they made four demands of the administration: create a comprehensive plan to vaccinate detainees, give detainees the same priority for vaccination as staff, secure vaccine supplies and distribute them to facilities, and address the well-known mental health consequences of the pandemic.

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Immigration detention settings, the doctors wrote, “continue to be a significant source of spread for Covid and disproportionate harm to detainees, workers and the public.” But despite the dangers, they said, “DHS has still not implemented a comprehensive plan to address the spread of Covid in immigration detention facilities.”

The whistleblowers pointed to the growing population of detainees, which increases the risk greatly. They also mention the “well documented” failures by ICE and contractors to “comply with applicable standards of care,” which they say have “only worsened during [the Covid-19] pandemic.”

As of last week, 26,197 people were held in detention by ICE. And in May testimony to Congress, Acting ICE Director Tae Johnson reported that only 1,229 ICE detainees had been fully vaccinated, while another 1,478 had received one dose of a vaccine. The doctors compared those numbers to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which has administered nearly 200,000 vaccine doses to people incarcerated in federal prisons.

Part of the problem, the whistleblowers wrote, is that ICE “believes it is the responsibility of local health authorities — and not ICE — to distribute [the] vaccine to their facilities.” But, according to the doctors, because the federal government is the “detaining authority,” it is the federal government’s responsibility to ensure detainees are vaccinated.

In addition to vaccinations, the whistleblowers urged the administration to find ways to address the mental health consequences of using isolation, which may prevent the spread of the virus but can also have negative mental health effects on detainees who stay in isolation for prolonged periods of time. “We reissue our call for full implementation of trauma-informed care and highlight the importance of screening for mental health issues and providing the necessary care,” they wrote.

The whistleblowers’ letter echoes what immigrant rights organizations have been asking for. The ACLU in May wrote a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas pushing for vaccination of detainees. “ICE’s failure to ensure a coordinated strategy for vaccination continues to endanger people in detention nationwide,” they wrote, adding, “Meanwhile, Covid-19 outbreaks continue to spread in detention facilities nationwide, risking the health and safety of detainees despite ICE’s duty to protect those in its custody, in violation of their constitutional rights.”

According to the most recent data, as of June 24, ICE reported 831 positive Covid-19 cases among people currently in custody. Across the entire pandemic, ICE has reported more than 18,000 confirmed cases and nine deaths related to Covid-19.

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