For much of the pandemic, a steadily dropping population at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma has helped keep at bay the kind of large-scale coronavirus outbreaks that have hit some federal immigrant detention centers and state prisons. But since the beginning of June, as federal authorities transferred hundreds of detainees from the southern border, 29 of those held at the Tacoma facility have tested positive.
All were recent transfers, according to court filings in a class-action lawsuit filed by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington on behalf of older and medically vulnerable individuals. A federal judge has required Immigration and Customs Enforcement to report every new COVID-19 case.
Aaron Korthuis, a NWIRP attorney working on the lawsuit, said the recent cases amount to “clearly the biggest outbreak we’ve seen during COVID.” With the availability of vaccines and testing, he added, “at this point in the pandemic, it feels almost like this sort of thing shouldn’t be happening. “
The facility’s detainees are offered the chance to be vaccinated, and about 70% were as of June 3, according to a court declaration submitted by Drew Bostock, the officer in charge of enforcement and removal operations in ICE’s Seattle field office. ICE and the GEO Group, the private company that runs the detention center, have said they have taken other extensive precautions, including distributing masks and social distancing.
They said it was easier to keep people apart as the pandemic slowed ICE enforcement and the number of people in the 1,575-bed facility dropped. In the spring, it held only about 200.
It’s not clear how many are there now; one June court filing cited a population of 369. The number has climbed as ICE has been transferring people from the southern border, sometimes more than 100 at a time, according to court filings. Korthuis said that’s likely in part because the Biden administration has been letting more asylum-seekers into the country after ending President Donald Trump’s policy of making them wait in Mexico.
“These transfers are necessary to prevent overcrowding and maintain pandemic safety precautions in ICE facilities at the southern border,” Bostock wrote in one declaration.
Another of his declarations, informing the court of five new COVID-19 cases, said the individuals had been tested before being transferred, and that detainees and transport personnel had been required to wear masks.
Eunice Cho, an ACLU senior staff attorney working on the litigation, said she doubts ICE is testing all detainees before transferring them, however. “Whatever mechanism ICE is taking is certainly not sufficient,” she said.
Cho and Korthuis said they believe some detainees are likely contracting COVID-19 either in flight to Tacoma or in the units where they are held once they arrive. Transferred detainees, kept separate from general population for 14 days so they can be tested and monitored for the virus, used to go into cells containing just one or two people, according to Korthuis. Now, as the numbers go up, ICE is reporting some are put into “open bay” units. He and Cho said such units could contain many more people, though they didn’t know how many.
ICE’s Seattle spokesperson, David Yost, said he couldn’t comment on COVID-19 cases or answer questions, referring inquiries to national spokespeople, who couldn’t be reached Wednesday. A GEO Group spokesperson also had no comment on the recent cases, and cited an earlier statement about precautions it has taken.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s office “is involved and monitoring, having been in contact with federal officials,” according to spokesperson Tara Lee. So is the state Department of Health.
Washington’s epidemiologist for communicable diseases, Scott Lindquist, wrote a June letter to the detention center’s administrator with what he said was an urgent request to prevent released detainees from spreading COVID-19 among Washingtonians at large.
He said two recently transferred detainees who had tested positive were released, and appropriately went into isolation for 10 days. ICE filings show the agency coordinated with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department to place some such detainees in a “temporary care center” for people who do not have a place to quarantine.
But Lindquist said the two detainees had been in contact with 80 other detainees. They also had been released, but ICE had made no quarantine arrangements with health officials, Lindquist said. “Release without coordination with the local and state public health system could potentially create a public health crisis in Washington state,” he wrote.
Yost did not confirm Lindquist’s account. Reached by phone, the epidemiologist said he had gotten his information from ICE officials, and had met with some Tuesday to talk about the issue. He said ICE has been very amenable to working with health officials.