ACLU insists local health officials ensure COVID-19 vaccine access for ICE detainees

The entrance to the GEO Group’s immigrant detention facility is shown in Aurora, Colo. SENTINEL FILE PHOTO

AURORA | The ACLU of Colorado on Thursday sent a letter to local health department leaders and regional Immigration and Customs Enforcement staff requesting all ICE detainees have access to COVID-19 vaccines. 

“ICE detention centers are no different than jails and prisons. These types of facilities are a virus’ delight. With no way to adhere to CDC guidelines, the virus can spread easily and quickly,” Denise Maes, ACLU of Colorado public policy director, said in a statement. “The answer is to depopulate the facility and vaccinate those persons housed there. And do it now.”

The letter — which asks agencies to coordinate, offer information about the vaccine to detainees and again offer inoculations to detainees who have previously declined the vaccine — comes a month after the north Aurora ICE processing center was hit with a large coronavirus outbreak. 

The outbreak was due to “the number of non-citizens being transferred to (ICE) custody from border facilities,” according to Denver ICE spokesperson Alethea Smock. A total of 96 detainees and one facility employee tested positive for the virus.

Congressman Jason Crow, who’s office has been tallying the cases in weekly accountability reports, re-introduced legislation last week that would prohibit transferring detainees between local, state and federal facilities in an effort to reduce viral spread. 

The legislation was first introduced in November under the Trump administration.

Last week, there were a total of 31 cases at the facility, which is owned and operated by GEO Group Inc. COVID-19 outbreaks have continued to happen in ICE facilities across the country despite the vaccine.

“ICE’s failure to ensure a coordinated strategy for vaccination continues to endanger people in detention nationwide. ICE’s COVID-19 plan has left it to individual detention facilities to ‘contact their state’s COVID-19 vaccine resource . . . to obtain vaccine.’ This vaccination approach, however, has led to widespread failure,” the ACLU letter reads. “While more than 60 percent of adults in the United States have received at least one dose of a vaccine, the vast majority of people in ICE detention have yet to receive a dose.”

The letter also requests that detainees be “offered the opportunity to speak with a medical provider; can receive the vaccine within 48 hours of request; make arrangements for a second dose for all people who are released and/or transferred after their first dose.”

In an email to the Sentinel, the Tri-County Health Department confirmed that the agency planned to be at the GEO detention center Thursday to offer vaccinations for both detainees and staff.

Prior to the April outbreak, Tri-County had only administered vaccinations at the facility once, a spokesperson confirmed.

When detainees are  transferred to the facility in north Aurora they’re given a COVID-19 test and “cohorted” for two weeks, according to ICE. After that time and showing no flu-like symptoms, detainees can be moved into the general population.

As of Tuesday ICE reported there were 1,495 detainees in their custody nationwide that tested positive for COVID-19. Since the beginning of the pandemic 15,647 detainees have tested positive for the virus.