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Advocates Work to Combat Vaccine Distrust in ICE Detention Facilities

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The Adelanto Detention Facility is the largest U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in California. The facility is managed by the private GEO Group. Organizers signal that distrust of for-profit prison operators like GEO Group and Core Civic among detained migrants could complicate the process to vaccinate this population. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Immigrant advocates are pushing state officials to increase outreach at facilities where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees are being held, to combat distrust over the COVID-19 vaccine.

"Immigrants inside were saying, 'Hey, they're offering us a vaccine, but we have no information. We have no idea what it's about, if there are any side effects,' " said Edwin Carmona-Cruz, director of community engagement at the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice, a coalition of pro-bono legal service providers that offer support to immigrants in detention facilities.

While federal, state and local officials have engaged in a public outreach campaign for months to ensure that residents are aware of the facts about the vaccine, advocates say similar efforts have not been made within detention facilities.

And even when information is provided by ICE — or the subcontractors that run their facilities — there is often widespread distrust. There have been numerous reports of the substandard health care provided at ICE facilities, and advocates say detainees may be skeptical of what immigration officials are telling them.

"Individuals in detention harbor serious fears and mistrust toward detention operators, and as a result may not feel safe accepting vaccines from these operators," said state Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula, D-Fresno, at a press conference on Monday.

"Given these serious challenges around trust towards detention operators, it is clear that the public health officials and the community can play a vital role with respect to how vaccinations and information are presented and shared with individuals inside these facilities."

Arambula has introduced Assembly Bill 263, which would "require a private detention facility operator to comply with, and adhere to, all local and state public health orders and occupational safety and health regulations."

"There is no trust — and there's mistrust — in both ICE and for-profit prison operators like GEO Group and Core Civic," Carmona-Cruz said. "How are they going to believe that the information that they're giving to them is true when ... the medical care and medical negligence that happens in these facilities runs rampant."

After hearing these concerns from detainees, Carmona-Cruz and others took on another approach. For three weeks, they've operated a hotline — staffed by health care professionals — that people in ICE detention could call to get any of their questions answered.

So far, the program has only been in place at a few facilities: the Yuba County Jail, Golden State Annex and the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Facility. But advocates say it's the state's responsibility to expand these efforts.

Dr. Daniel Turner-Lloveras, a physician at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, is one of the health care providers who's been staffing these calls. He says a systematic approach is needed to address "medical mistrust" in detention facilities, since any infection hot spots will "contribute to the spread of COVID-19."

"We must try our best to counteract this misinformation by educating our patients in a way that they're going to understand, in a cultural and linguistically appropriate, patient-centered fashion," Turner-Lloveras said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for CoreCivic — which runs the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego — said it has "rigorously followed the guidance of local, state and federal health authorities, as well as our government partners."

The Management & Training Corporation, which operates the Imperial Regional Detention Facility in Calexico, said it is providing the vaccine to "all detainees who have expressed their desire to be vaccinated," and is providing informational sessions and documents about the vaccine in English, Spanish and other languages.

In a statement, ICE said it is "firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody."

People in immigration detention facilities became eligible for the vaccine back in March. Advocates said there were months of back and forth over who was responsible for providing the vaccine — the state or the federal government.

"Report after report came out that the federal government and the state government essentially played a game of hot potato," said Jackie Gonzalez, policy director of Immigrant Defense Advocates.

This caused widespread concerns among advocates that detainees would be left out.

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Eventually, on March 11, state officials opted to include the immigrant detention centers in their March 15 rollout of the vaccine — since they are considered to be in high-risk congregate care facilities. This meant that the state would provide vaccine doses for detainees to county health departments, who would in turn provide them to detention centers to administer to the people held there.

Overall, Carmona-Cruz said, California should recognize that vaccinating people in detention will ultimately help the state achieve its goals.

"Immigrants in detention are also our neighbors, our friends, our family members, [they're] residents of the state. And they're also contributing to the success of how the state does. So we definitely need to consider and characterize it that way," he said.

As of April 12, 777 people in ICE detention in California have contracted the coronavirus since the pandemic started.

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