Advocates Fear Immigrant Detainees Could Be Left Out of Vaccination Plans

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Pfizer's Covid-19 vaccine is pictured at Rady Children's Hospital before it's placed back in the refrigerator in San Diego, California on December 15, 2020. (Photo by ARIANA DREHSLER / AFP) (Photo by ARIANA DREHSLER/AFP via Getty Images)
Pfizer's Covid-19 vaccine is pictured at Rady Children's Hospital before it's placed back in the refrigerator in San Diego, California on December 15, 2020. (Ariana Drehsler/AFP via Getty Images)

Even as California has begun providing the COVID-19 vaccine to thousands of incarcerated people, advocates fear vulnerable detained immigrants are being forgotten, with neither federal nor state authorities seeming to take responsibility for this population.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials maintain California is in charge of distributing the vaccine to immigrants held in facilities throughout the state.

“Vaccines for detainees are being allocated by local and state health departments, and timelines vary based on availability and priorities within each state,” said Danielle Bennett, an ICE spokesperson, in a statement this week.

“ICE has been working with state and local health departments to ensure that the ICE detainee population is included in state vaccination plans,” she added.

But until recently, California officials believed ICE was leading inoculation efforts for people in its custody, according to members of an advisory group tasked with helping public health officials distribute the vaccine equitably.

“I think everyone prior to this week was under the assumption that it is federal property, so it was going to be up to the federal government,” said Orville Thomas, who sits on the state’s Community Vaccine Advisory Committee.

The governor’s office did not return repeated requests for comment, and the California Department of Public Health referred questions to ICE.

“Suggest you reach out to ICE for information,” a CDPH spokesperson told KQED in an email. “When we have additional information to share, we will loop back with you.”

Immigration detention centers, like other congregate settings, pose a greater risk of COVID-19 infection, with one study estimating the mean case rate among ICE detainees was about 13 times higher than for the U.S. population overall during the first six months of the pandemic.

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In California, the coronavirus has swept through nearly all of the seven immigration detention facilities, infecting hundreds of detainees and dozens of staffers. In May, a 57-year-old Salvadoran man held at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, near San Diego, became the first person to die from COVID-19 in ICE custody.

“These are lives that are at greater risk considering what we know happens at these facilities,” said Thomas, who directs government affairs at the California Immigrant Policy Center in Sacramento. “So if the ball was dropped, it needs to get picked up.”

The state initially prioritized people in congregate settings, including those incarcerated, for vaccine allocation. More than 8,700 state prison inmates — 9% of the total prison population — have received the first round of the vaccine, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

But it is unclear if any immigrant detainees in the state have been inoculated yet.

ICE and two private prison companies operating most of the detention facilities in California — the GEO Group and CoreCivic — declined to answer whether any detainees in their custody had received the vaccine.

Issa Arnita, a spokesman with Management & Training Corp., which runs the Imperial Regional Detention Facility in Calexico, said while some staffers have received doses, the vaccine “has not yet reached detainees.”

However, Arnita said that the company would offer the vaccine to people held in its facilities once local authorities deliver it.

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“As soon as we can get more vaccines from the health department, we will make them available to all staff and detainees,” he said.

Advocates and lawyers representing ICE detainees in California said they didn’t know of anyone held at these facilities who had received the vaccine.

This week, dozens of organizations renewed their calls for state officials to include immigrant detainees in their vaccination plans and disclose the details and timeline, sending a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom and Dr. Tomás Aragón, the head of the California Department of Public Health.

“Not only have they not been vaccinating folks in ICE detention, but there seemingly does not appear to be a plan in place,” said Hamid Yazdan Panah, who directs advocacy for Immigrant Defense Advocates, one of the letter’s main signatories.

There are currently over 1,200 ICE detainees in California. The number of people held in immigration detention centers has plummeted during the pandemic to 14,200 nationwide — from 23,400 last June — in part because courts have ordered ICE to release vulnerable immigrants.

Still, nearly 9,000 people who were or are in ICE detention have tested positive for the virus so far, including hundreds in California, according to agency figures.

The state has argued in court recently that it has the right to protect people’s safety and health within its borders, even those who are in federal detention facilities. Yet with ICE declining responsibility, and California seeming to take no action, Yazdan Panah worries that immigrant detainees may not be able to receive the vaccine at all.

“What we want to see is California exercising [its] right and ensuring that individuals in these facilities are protected,” he said.

The bureaucratic confusion comes as the state struggles with one of the slowest vaccine rollouts in the nation. One of the biggest problems is that the federal government hasn’t delivered enough doses to the state, said Kiran Savage-Sangwan, who directs the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network and also sits on the CDPH’s Community Vaccine Advisory Committee.

Even with the limited supply, California is trying to speed up delivery by shifting from a complex list of at-risk populations and essential workers, to a simpler age-based system, with those 65 and older first in line.

That change, and the state’s lack of clarity around who is in charge of vaccinating immigrant detainees, may delay COVID-19 protections even longer for people held at ICE facilities, she said.

“I hope it gets resolved because it's so important,” said Savage-Sangwan. “We really have seen major outbreaks in the detention centers and we have to, you know, not be playing hot potato with this issue.”

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