At Least Seven Texas Detention Center Employees Who Tested Positive for COVID-19 Were Not Officially Reported by ICE

Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it is not obligated to report contractors’ employees who have tested positive. Meanwhile, the agency confirmed its first positive case in Texas detention centers and continued facility transfers.

The 1,000-bed Houston Contract Detention Facility.
The 1,000-bed Houston Contract Detention Facility. Stephen Paulsen

Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it is not obligated to report contractors’ employees who have tested positive. Meanwhile, the agency confirmed its first positive case in Texas detention centers and continued facility transfers.

The 1,000-bed Houston Contract Detention Facility.
The 1,000-bed Houston Contract Detention Facility. Stephen Paulsen

In late March, an employee at the Houston Contract Detention Facility became the first detention center staff case reported by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Texas. However, ICE officials confirmed to the Observer they are not reporting cases of contractors who work in Texas immigration facilities who have tested positive for COVID-19 because they are employed by a third party. This means the list of infected employees who are potentially interacting with detained persons and facility staff is incomplete.

Ryan Gustin, manager of public affairs for CoreCivic, the prison company contracted to run five detention centers in Laredo, Houston, South Texas, and Williamson County, said it has “three confirmed cases of COVID-19 among our CoreCivic employees that work at the Houston Processing Center. They are recovering at home and are in regular communication with their health care providers,” Gustin told the Observer.

ice, houston, immigration
CoreCivic is contracted to run five detention centers in Texas.  Stephen Paulsen

A spokesperson for GEO Group, a prison company that runs detention centers in Conroe and Pearsall, confirmed it has three employees at the Montgomery Processing Center in Conroe who have tested positive for COVID-19. “One of the employees who tested positive is currently on self-quarantine at home,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “The second employee has fully recovered and returned to work after meeting return-to-work guidelines for essential workers issued by the CDC. The third employee who tested positive has completed a 14-day quarantine and is expected to return to work, in accordance with the CDC’s return-to-work guidelines for essential workers.”

Meanwhile, Carley Lawrence, vice president of corporate communication for Chenega Corporation, which has employees at the Port Isabel Service Processing Center, confirmed that on March 30 the company became aware of an employee who works at the detention center who tested positive for coronavirus.

An official from Management and Training Corporation, a prison company that is contracted by ICE to run three detention centers, in Houston, Raymondville, and Anson, confirmed it is not aware of any of its employees at Texas detention centers testing positive.

None of these cases have been reported by ICE on its official list of COVID-19 positive detainees and employees, which lists only 25 infected detention center employees nationally. Instead, the agency says that information about infections of contractors must come from the contracting company. “The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Coronavirus website maintains information on individuals in our detention centers and ICE employees that have tested positive for COVID-19,” ICE said in a statement. “Contractor information is maintained with each contract organization.”

ICE would not provide a list of the organizations with which it contracts in Texas.

Yesterday, the question of contractors’ employees being added to ICE’s list of detention center employees who have tested positive for COVID-19 was catapulted to the national stage when a federal judge in Florida ruled that ICE would be obligated to add them to the list for three contract detention facilities in that state.

But employees—contractors and ICE personnel—are not the only people at risk of contracting COVID-19. On Monday, a 40-year-old Mexican national became the first ICE detainee to test positive in Texas, according to ICE. The detainee had been transferred from Harris County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) custody to the IAH Secure Adult Detention Facility in Livingston, potentially putting others at risk.

ICE officials confirmed: “Prior to the transfer, HCSO advised ICE that the individual may have been exposed to COVID-19 in their custody.” ICE said the detainee has been in isolation since arriving at the detention facility, which houses 440 ICE detainees.

An HCSO spokesperson said the sheriff’s office is unaware of any inmates being transferred to another agency after testing positive for COVID-19, but it would be the office’s protocol to inform an agency in advance if an inmate being transferred was showing symptoms consistent with the coronavirus. Currently, HCSO has 50 inmates at the Harris County Jail who have tested positive, another 55 in quarantine with possible symptoms, and 1,758 who are being monitored after potential exposure.

Elizabeth Sanchez Kennedy, Immigration Legal Services director for YMCA International Services, said her organization works closely with detainees in the Houston area. She confirmed that it has received reports of detainees being transferred to ICE custody from local jails and prisons that have positive COVID-19 cases and being detained with people experiencing symptoms consistent with the coronavirus. “We have heard from multiple sources that their loved ones are detained with people that have symptoms like fever or lethargy,” Sanchez Kennedy told the Observer.

Margaret Cargioli, managing attorney of the California-based Immigrant Defenders Law Center’s Cross-Border Initiative program, said one of her clients previously housed at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in California, which has reported the highest number of positive COVID-19 cases in detention facilities nationally, was moved to the Houston Processing Center in mid-March. She said her client was denied parole on the grounds that there were not exceptional circumstances and she was notified of the transfer a few days later.

“There was no urgent need,” Cargioli told the Observer. “I don’t understand why they were moving people in and out to another facility.”

Last week, the Immigrant Defenders Law Center released audio from Cargioli’s client in which he can be heard saying he is detained with people who are showing symptoms consistent with COVID-19. Cargioli said the group decided to release the audio, though they are aware that detainees who’ve spoken out about conditions during the pandemic have faced retribution.

The virus isn’t discriminating by age either. In the past two weeks, Sanchez Kennedy said her office became aware of at least one minor in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) housed at an ORR shelter where staffers have tested positive for COVID-19 who was transferred to ICE custody after turning 18. “All of these transfers are concerning us because it is putting the detainees at increased risk of contracting COVID-19,” Sanchez Kennedy told the Observer.

In a statement, ORR said six “unaccompanied alien children,” or UAC, have recovered and 21 others have tested positive and remain in medical isolation in two Texas shelters and one in Illinois. Discharges of unaccompanied minors continue nationwide, and on April 6, ORR issued field guidance on how to discharge a minor who has tested positive or been exposed to COVID-19. Additionally, ORR said there are currently 53 self-reports of positive COVID-19 test results among personnel affiliated with ORR programs in seven states.

Correction: ICE reported 25 detention center employees who tested positive for COVID-19 as of Thursday, April 16. The Observer originally stated the agency reported 21. The Observer regrets the error.

Find all of our coronavirus coverage here.

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Acacia Coronado is a reporter for the Associated Press. As a fellow for the Texas Observer in 2020, she covered immigration and deportation issues and broke new ground on conditions in the largest migrant camp on the Texas-Mexico border.


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