COVID-19 cases among immigrant detainees could be 15 times higher than ICE reports

Immigration and Customs Enforcement could be severely underreporting the number of COVID-19 infections in detention centers, according to estimated projections released Tuesday by the Vera Institute of Justice.

ICE has reported 752 people who have tested positive for the coronavirus currently in custody who are either in isolation or are being monitored, according to the agency’s most recent data. The number of detainees in ICE custody is currently 23,429.

Based on its own epidemiological model, the Vera Institute estimates the number of COVID-19 cases could be 15 times higher than what ICE reports.

"Through simulating a 60-day period beginning in mid-March 2020, Vera’s model estimated that nearly 1 in 5 people detained for any length of time during this period would be infected with COVID-19," the report said.

The nonprofit, which focuses on criminal justice, used recent ICE data to look at the number of new detainees and the frequent transfers between detention centers. The institute took into consideration data from fiscal year 2016 on ICE bookings and transfers and extrapolated from those historical patterns.

“They [ICE] haven’t been transparent, so this is our best attempt at making an educated guess,” said Dennis Kuo, a senior data scientist and the author of the report.

If ICE continued its pattern of transferring people, it would have made 1,744 transfers by the end of the simulation period. At this point, 9 percent of the people who have ever had COVID-19 would be transferred by ICE at least once while being actively contagious.

“One of the big issues is that ICE is always transferring people in large volume,” said Nina Siulc, director of research at the Vera Institute.

Related: "Now that they're granting some paroles, they're placing as many hurdles as possible," said a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Kuo called the results of the simulation “alarming.” The simulation ran from mid-March to mid-May and at the conclusion, the virus had not peaked yet in the detention centers.

In an emailed statement to NBC News, ICE stated: "Since the outbreak of COVID-19, ICE has taken extensive steps to safeguard all detainees, staff and contractors, including: reducing the number of detainees in custody by placing individuals on alternatives to detention programs, suspending social visitation, incorporating social distancing practices with staggered meals and recreation times, and through the use of cohorting and medical isolation."

ICE also stated that its "detained population has steadily dropped by more than 7,000 individuals since March 1, 2020 as a result of the decrease in book-ins when compared to this time last year," as well as the release of more than 900 people after consulting with medical professionals and experts over ways to reduce the spread of the virus.

Siulc underscored that even though the institute's study shows a rate of infection much higher than ICE has reported, “it’s very clear that it’s likely to be a low estimate.” She said the study did not take into account potential infections spreading between contractors and detainees. ICE reports infections among its staff but not employees of private contractors.

ICE has continued to book thousands of people into custody during the pandemic and the authors of the report say this is putting detainees further at risk.

“It’s putting new people into facilities -- that we know from their own testimony before Congress -- are not equipped with basic public health measures,” Siulc said. “Why they are apprehending people during a pandemic is not something they have been asked to account for,” she said.

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