Protests Among ICE Detainees Grow As Four Test Positive for Coronavirus

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has seen at least four confirmed cases of coronavirus among immigration detainees, as it continues to face growing protests from those who fear they could be exposed to COVID-19 while in detention.

Last week, detainees at a for-profit prison in Jena, Louisiana, said staff had pepper-sprayed them after they started protesting when workers gave them "evasive" answers to their concerns around the COVID-19 outbreak."We are very scared," María, a 23-year-old Cuban asylum seeker, told CBS News in Spanish. "We know we can die inside here. The situation does not bode well for us. We don't have a way to protect ourselves."

Detainees in Jena are far from alone in fearing for their safety, with those held at facilities in a number of states participating in hunger strikes and protests to demand ICE improve health and safety measures or allow detainees to be released amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

On Saturday, MILPA (Movimiento de Inmigrantes Líderes en Pensilvania, or the Leading Immigrant Movement in Pennsylvania), posted on its Facebook page that detained immigrants at York County Prison had also launched a hunger strike, as they demanded to be released.

According to MILPA, detainees were concerned that detention workers would bring the virus into the facility and potentially put detainees at risk. The protesters were also concerned that they would "not receive the necessary medical care to combat the virus."

In a statement shared with Newsweek, an ICE spokesperson confirmed "several detainees in ICE custody at York County Prison, in York, Pennsylvania have recently refused meals, but still have access to food via the commissary."

"Due to privacy rules, we are prohibited from discussing individuals engaged in a hunger strike by name or specifics of their case absent the detainee's consent," the spokesperson said.

"ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference," they added, asserting that "ICE does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers. ICE explains the negative health effects of not eating to our detainees, and they are under close medical observation by ICE or contract medical providers. For their health and safety, ICE carefully monitors the food and water intake of those detainees identified as being on a hunger strike."

The growing unrest comes as immigration advocates have worked to see detained asylum seekers and migrants considered vulnerable to coronavirus released from ICE facilities where cases have been identified.

Last week, a federal judge in New York City ordered the immediate release of 10 detainees who were believed to be at increased risk of suffering health consequences from coronavirus due to underlying health conditions.

However, in the days since, the number of detainees who have tested positive has risen to four, according to ICE.

While the agency had initially confirmed just one case of COVID-19 among detainees in Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, New Jersey, this week, it updated its website to say that two detainees had now tested positive for the virus.

Meanwhile, one detainee in Essex County Correction Facility in Newark, New Jersey has tested positive for coronavirus, while another detainee in Hudson County Jail in Kearney, New Jersey has also tested positive.

A flag flies at the Metropolitan Detention Center on July 14, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. David McNew/Getty

In addition to ICE detainees catching the virus, a number of ICE employees and personnel working in ICE detention facilities have also tested positive for COVID-19.

According to ICE's website, so far, there have been two cases of coronavirus among personnel at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility in Aurora, Colorado, one case at the Elizabeth Contract Detention Facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey, one case at the Houston Contract Detention Facility in Houston Texas and another at the Hudson County Jail in Kearny, New Jersey.

The agency has also seen 28 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among ICE employees not assigned to detention facilities.

It is unclear what roles these employees performed or whether they would have had any interactions with detainees. Newsweek has followed up on a previous request for further information on this.

World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Hygiene advice

  • Clean hands frequently with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Wash hands after coughing or sneezing; when caring for the sick; before, during and after food preparation; before eating; after using the toilet; when hands are visibly dirty; and after handling animals or waste.
  • Maintain at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your hands, nose and mouth. Do not spit in public.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or bent elbow when coughing or sneezing. Discard the tissue immediately and clean your hands.

Medical advice

  • Avoid close contact with others if you have any symptoms.
  • Stay at home if you feel unwell, even with mild symptoms such as headache and runny nose, to avoid potential spread of the disease to medical facilities and other people.
  • If you develop serious symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) seek medical care early and contact local health authorities in advance.
  • Note any recent contact with others and travel details to provide to authorities who can trace and prevent spread of the disease.
  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.

Mask and glove usage

  • Healthy individuals only need to wear a mask if taking care of a sick person.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning.
  • Do not touch the mask while wearing it. Clean hands if you touch the mask.
  • Learn how to properly put on, remove and dispose of masks. Clean hands after disposing of the mask.
  • Do not reuse single-use masks.
  • Regularly washing bare hands is more effective against catching COVID-19 than wearing rubber gloves.
  • The COVID-19 virus can still be picked up on rubber gloves and transmitted by touching your face.

This article has been updated with a statement from ICE.

Editor's pick

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts