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Reports Show COVID Boosters Are Lagging in ICE Detention, Advocates Call for State to Intervene

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Three people are seen with masks and holding red and pink signs that read "Free Enrique." One person holds a red sign in one hand and a microphone in the other.
Supporters of Enrique Cristobal Meneses and other ICE detainees at Golden State Annex call for their release outside Sen. Alex Padilla's offices in Los Angeles, on Feb. 10, 2021. (Courtesy of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network)

Immigrant advocates say the rollout of COVID-19 boosters at federal immigration detention centers in California has been sluggish and uneven, and they’re asking the state to intervene to protect detainees’ health.

Confirmed coronavirus cases among people locked up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement skyrocketed from about 300 to more than 3,100 last month, as omicron infections peaked nationwide.

That figure dropped to 1,660 this week. But many detainees still need boosters as outbreaks continue at some ICE facilities in the state, said Edwin Carmona-Cruz, with the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice.

“There are massive efforts across the state and across the nation to be vaccinated, to be boosted, right? And so when you look at this population that’s in immigration detention, they're forgotten,” said Carmona-Cruz, who directs community engagement at his organization.

For months now, booster vaccinations have been one of the federal government’s top priorities in fighting COVID. Since November, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended booster shots for all adults, and in mid-December, it endorsed Pfizer and Moderna shots, because they have been shown to be more effective than Johnson & Johnson against COVID-19.

But as of early January, only about 3% of people held in ICE custody had received any booster shot, according to news reports citing agency figures.

Medical experts with the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, warned DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in a letter dated Jan. 26 of the often “slow and inconsistent” response at immigration detention centers to limit the spread of COVID.

In spite of CDC guidance calling for so-called mRNA boosters such as Pfizer or Moderna, “DHS does not appear to have adopted this approach even in the face of the high, well documented risks associated with detention settings,” wrote Dr. Scott Allen and Dr. Josiah Rich, who conducted numerous investigations of detention facilities on behalf of DHS’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

“The threat of Omicron in a congregate setting with populations who are either unvaccinated or only vaccinated with a single dose of J&J vaccine poses an immediate threat to the lives of immigrants, staff and communities surrounding the detention centers with staff and detainees entering and exiting facilities and must be addressed with booster vaccinations,” said Allen and Rich.

In fact, ICE’s current pandemic response requirements, last updated in October 2021, do not mention boosters or any requirements to provide them to eligible people held at the more than 130 detention facilities nationwide — many of which are operated by private companies.

Critics say the lack of a nationwide policy has led to uneven access to boosters at detention centers, and a failure by ICE to properly care for people in its custody.

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In California, immigrant detainees have reported weeks-long delays in getting a booster shot, a lack of information about the three kinds of vaccines, or pressure to accept the J&J booster, according to a letter that the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice and dozens of other organizations sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom and California Department of Public Health Director Dr. Tomás Aragón.

In response to the letter, officials with the CDPH sat down with a group of the advocates, said Carmona-Cruz, who attended the meeting. He said the group petitioned CDPH to mandate access to Pfizer and Moderna boosters at the seven ICE detention centers in the state.

“We are requesting the state to intervene, to protect the health and safety of immigrants when there’s federal inaction with regards to booster and vaccine access,” said Carmona-Cruz.

CDPH is reviewing the advocates’ letter, but has “no further comment at this time,” said a spokesperson with the agency.

Meanwhile, advocates are most worried about the estimated 4,500 people in ICE detention across the country who they say are at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 because of underlying medical conditions.

One of them is Enrique Cristobal Meneses, who was confirmed positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 26 while held at Golden State Annex, a privately run ICE detention center north of Bakersfield. The previous week, the facility had reported no detainees with COVID-19, but it now has 46, according to ICE’s figures.

“My lungs hurt. I’ve been coughing since the 21st” of January, said Cristobal, 38, who suffers from severe asthma and spoke with KQED by phone from the detention center last week.

Cristobal contracted the virus a few days after he said guards placed a new detainee in his dorm, a man with fever, muscle aches and other coronavirus symptoms. The placement was an apparent violation of ICE’s pandemic protocols, which require detention facilities to test all new arrivals for COVID-19 and house them separately for 14 days while monitoring for any symptoms.

“I feel like their negligence put our health and our lives at risk,” said Cristobal. “I was frustrated … there were a lot of detainees displaying symptoms, and it could have been prevented with Golden State staff following protocol.”

Cristobal did not get a booster, he said, because the detention center only offered Johnson & Johnson doses, and he had had a bad reaction after his initial J&J vaccine. He had been requesting a Moderna or Pfizer booster since November, he said.

“Their response is you can get the Johnson & Johnson. If you don’t want it, you wait till you get out,” said Cristobal, who was transferred to ICE custody on November 2020, after serving 17 years in state prison for a conviction of attempted murder.

Gov. Newsom had commuted his prison sentence and determined he was ready for release on parole, citing his rehabilitation and “exemplary disciplinary record.” But Cristobal, an immigrant from Mexico, had entered the U.S. without authorization when he was a teen. ICE considered him a public safety threat and arrested him as soon as he was released from state prison.

A man stands wearing a black graduation cap and gown behind a sign that's reads "Congrats Grad."
Enrique Cristobal Meneses celebrates earning his General Education Development degree on June 12, 2014, at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad. (Courtesy of Pangea Legal Services)

A spokesperson for the GEO Group, the company that operates Golden State Annex, declined to comment on Cristobal’s COVID story. He said boosters are available to detainees, but wouldn’t say which kind.

“We continue to work closely with our government agency partners and state and local health departments to make vaccinations, including booster shots, available to all eligible individuals housed at ICE Processing Centers,” said the GEO spokesperson in a statement.

Last March, California became one of the first states to offer COVID-19 vaccines to people held at federal immigrant detention facilities, after ICE maintained for months that the state was responsible for allocating doses within its borders.

County public health departments initially distributed vaccine shipments to detention centers. But now, facilities may order doses — including Moderna — directly through the state’s MyCAvax, a system for requesting and tracking COVID-19 vaccines. The shots can be administered by either medical personnel in the ICE detention centers or county health department staff.

ICE’s Health Service Corps has also provided the single-dose J&J vaccines to detention centers. The Imperial Regional Detention Facility in Calexico, where 20 detainees currently are under isolation or monitoring for COVID-19, has received vaccines and boosters from ICE since July 2021, said Issa Arnita, a spokesperson with the prison company that runs that facility.

“At this time, J&J is the only booster vaccine provided by the ICE Health Service Corps,” said Arnita, with Management & Training Corporation, in an email. “Boosters are available to all residents.”

However, medical experts have established that only offering the J&J vaccine as a booster shot falls below the standard of care expected for anyone in the country, said Eunice Cho, an attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project.

Cho filed a lawsuit last month on behalf of four medically vulnerable ICE detainees with conditions such as asthma and diabetes who couldn't get boosters at all, including at Golden State Annex, where Cristobal is held. A fifth plaintiff, who was advised to not take a J&J booster because he had an adverse reaction to that vaccine, was told Moderna and Pfizer doses were unavailable, according to the complaint.

“It is really inconceivable at this point that ICE has not gotten its act together to provide COVID-19 boosters to people in detention. This really just goes beyond the pale,” said Cho.

The lawsuit calls for ICE to provide boosters to the five plaintiffs, but Cho said she hopes the agency will also feel pressured to adopt a nationwide policy to offer the more effective boosters to all eligible detainees.

ICE has been working to secure access to Pfizer or Moderna doses for all detention facilities, said an agency spokesperson, who declined to answer questions about how many detainees have gotten boosters, citing pending litigation.

“ICE is committed to applying CDC guidance through its Pandemic Response Requirements and regularly communicates with senior medical leadership across the federal government on its detention health standards,” said the ICE spokesperson in a statement.

“Vaccine education materials have been developed and are available in multiple languages to ensure that those in our care and custody can make an informed choice during this global pandemic,” they added.

Enrique Cristobal Meneses, at Golden State Annex, feared long-term damage to his lungs as he said his condition continued to deteriorate. An X-ray last week showed lung inflammation, and medical staff prescribed him antibiotics and more frequent use of an inhaler, said his attorney Jessica Yamane, with Pangea Legal Services.

But on Friday, an immigration judge granted Cristobal the right to stay in the U.S, Yamane said, adding that his release will give him a chance to fully recover from the impact of COVID.

Cristobal, who earned his GED and became a certified drug and alcohol counselor during his time in prison, already has job offers as a restorative justice counselor.

While in ICE detention, Cristobal said he encouraged other detainees to learn about immigration law and the ICE guidelines the facility must follow.

“Silence is not an option,” said Cristobal. “If you know your rights, you can advocate for yourself.”

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