How #ICE Exported the Coronavirus
An investigation reveals how Immigration and Customs Enforcement became a domestic and global spreader of COVID-19.
Admild, an undocumented immigrant from Haiti, was feeling sick as he approached the deportation plane that was going to take him back to the country he had fled in fear. Two weeks before that day in May, while being held at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Louisiana, he had tested positive for the coronavirus — and he was still showing symptoms.
He disclosed his condition to an ICE official at the airport, who sent him to a nurse.
“She just gave me Tylenol,” said Admild, who feared reprisals if his last name was published. Not long after, he was back on the plane before landing in Port-au-Prince, one of more than 40,000 immigrants deported from the United States since March, according to ICE records.
Even as lockdowns and other measures have been taken around the world to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, ICE has continued to detain people, move them from state to state and deport them.
An investigation by The New York Times in collaboration with The Marshall Project reveals how unsafe conditions and scattershot testing helped turn ICE into a domestic and global spreader of the virus — and how pressure from the Trump administration led countries to take in sick deportees.
We spoke to more than 30 immigrant detainees who described cramped and unsanitary detention centers where social distancing was near impossible and protective gear almost nonexistent. “It was like a time bomb,” said Yudanys, a Cuban immigrant held in Louisiana.
At least four deportees interviewed by The Times, from India, Haiti, Guatemala and El Salvador, tested positive for the virus shortly after arriving from the United States.
So far, ICE has confirmed at least 3,000 coronavirus-positive detainees in its detention centers, though testing has been limited.
We tracked over 750 domestic ICE flights since March, carrying thousands of detainees to different centers, including some who said they were sick. Kanate, a refugee from Kyrgyzstan, was moved from the Pike County Correctional Facility in Pennsylvania to the Prairieland Detention Facility in Texas despite showing Covid-19 symptoms. He was confirmed to have the virus just a few days later.
“I was panicking,” he said. “I thought that I will die here in this prison.”
We also tracked over 200 deportation flights carrying migrants, some of them ill with coronavirus, to other countries from March through June. Under pressure from the Trump administration and with promises of humanitarian aid, some countries have fully cooperated with deportations.
El Salvador and Honduras have accepted more than 6,000 deportees since March. In April, President Trump praised the presidents of both countries for their cooperation and said he would send ventilators to help treat the sickest of their coronavirus patients.
So far, the governments of 11 countries have confirmed that deportees returned home with Covid-19.
When asked about the agency’s role in spreading the virus by moving and deporting sick detainees, ICE said it took precautions and followed guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of last week, ICE said that it was still able to test only a sampling of immigrants before sending them home. Yet deportation flights continue.
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