The Covid-19 pandemic has been raging for nearly two years, killing more than 865,000 people in the United States alone. The Omicron variant is here, it is a lot more infectious than previous variants, and it has reduced the effectiveness of vaccines at stemming transmission. Despite the US lead in Covid-19 deaths worldwide and Omicron’s ongoing impact, the Biden administration has prioritized a “new normal” instead of implementing federal policies to prevent Covid-19 transmission, including the mass release of people in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers.
By failing to adopt a policy of decarceration, the Biden administration is placing millions of people—including more 20,000 who are in ICE detention—at risk of a Covid-19 illness, disability, and death. Conditions of incarceration are inherently disabling: People behind bars face appalling medical neglect and unsanitary living conditions, are tightly packed in poorly ventilated spaces, and have limited bodily autonomy. These conditions exacerbate the risk of illness and death for disabled people or otherwise create disabilities for those without preexisting medical complications.
In these conditions of incarceration, the Biden administration’s emphasis on individual responsibility to prevent Covid-19 is meaningless. People in ICE detention have limited control over their access to vaccination, testing, and personal protective equipment. The frequency of testing in ICE detention centers is unknown, and ICE officials cannot state what percentage of the people they incarcerate are vaccinated against Covid-19. Similarly, they have admitted that there is no nationwide plan to identify people in ICE custody who are eligible for booster shots. ICE detainees across the country have also reported that they have not been given booster shots despite asking ICE officers for this basic precaution, urged by the president himself. The consequences of prioritizing individual responsibility are dire for those in ICE detention: In less than a month, the number of people in ICE detention who have tested positive for Covid-19 has skyrocketed from 285 to more than 2,748—at least a 625 percent increase.
Since the onset of the pandemic, people behind bars, their advocates, and loved ones, have been ringing the alarm about the dangers of Covid-19 and urging mass releases. But they are not the only ones. Public health professionals have concluded that Covid-19 cases in ICE detention exacerbated the pandemic in local communities where detention facilities are located, and similarly urged for releases. Investigative reporting by The New York Times and the Marshall Project has revealed that ICE spread Covid by detaining people, transferring them from state to state, and deporting them abroad. Federal and state governments also recognized this public health imperative when they acted to reduce prison populations in the spring of 2020.
Two years and nearly 1 million US deaths later, the Biden administration continues to fill ICE detention centers. In the final weeks of the Trump administration, there were approximately 15,000 people in ICE detention. Today, that number has climbed to 21,805. This increase in the ICE detention population is inexcusable—yet the Biden administration appears to be doubling down on its efforts to increase the immigration detention population, as it argues for the indefinite detention of thousands of immigrants before the Supreme Court and converts recently closed family detention centers into adult detention centers. Even as states pass legislation to end ICE detention contracts with locally run jails, ICE continues its transfer policies instead of releasing people to their families and caretakers. Indeed, the Biden administration’s only perceptible “release policy” is to free people on the verge of death to avoid publicly reporting another fatality in ICE detention.
The Biden administration’s commitment to ICE detention also defies the president’s own promises to rectify the harms of the Trump administration. While white supremacists like Stephen Miller organize xenophobic attacks on immigrants, the Biden administration blatantly snubs communities who ensured that bills like Illinois’s New Way Forward Act and Maryland’s Dignity Not Detention Act became law. At the end of his first year in office, Biden will not only have failed to secure a pathway to citizenship through budget reconciliation by erroneously deferring to a former Immigration and Naturalization Service prosecutor but also will have continued ICE detention policies that voters actively reject.
Covid-19 has revealed that our collective well-being is tied to the most vulnerable people in our communities, including incarcerated people. The Biden administration’s refusal to use its power to safely release people en masse from—and permanently close—ICE detention centers constitutes harmful policy that endangers us all. The longer the Biden administration allows these detention facilities to operate, the longer this pandemic will rage on. Just as it was clear to those paying close attention to the conditions in ICE centers in March 2020, it remains clear now: If we are to effectively combat the virus, we must free all incarcerated people.