Immigrants in ICE Detention Face High Risks in COVID-19 Pandemic

UC Davis Research Finds Detainees Suffer Underlying Health Issues

Those imprisoned in immigration detention facilities across the country face underlying health conditions and often have chronic illnesses that would expose them to greater risk with COVID-19, a new University of California, Davis, study suggests.

"The research is clear: immigration detention is not only unnecessary for facilitating a just immigration system, but also causes extensive harm to detained people, perhaps especially to those facing chronic health conditions,” said the study’s lead author, Caitlin Patler, professor of sociology. “This is particularly alarming in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The government must act quickly to permanently reduce reliance on this overly punitive and systematically unjust practice.”

The study was published earlier this month in the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health.

“Even beyond the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, immigration detention harms people’s health by disrupting the continuity of their medical care,” added the study’s co-author, Altaf Saadi, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “The vast majority of people have a stable place to stay and would be able to receive better health care if not detained.”

The report cites the May 2020 death of Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, the first person in ICE custody to die from COVID-19. “Health and legal professionals have raised the alarm that many detainees may be similarly imperiled by COVID-19 infection [in detention],” the authors wrote.

The researchers analyzed survey data on health from more than 500 people detained in 2013-14 by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, at four facilities in California. This is one of the only studies to capture information about the health of people detained by ICE. Researchers said the detainees’ health conditions may be similar to the current population of detained immigrants.

Of the individuals detained in 2013-14, at least 42 percent had at least one chronic condition, and 21 percent of those individuals faced disruption in care while in ICE custody.  

“Even one chronic condition can increase risk for severe consequences from COVID-19,” the authors said. These risks are heightened if health conditions are not adequately managed and there is disruption of pre-existing health care because they are incarcerated,” the researchers said.

The vast majority of detained people in the study (nearly 96 percent), reported having access to stable housing in the United States.

 “…Decision-makers must consider every available option to mandate release from the congregate setting of detention centers in which social distancing is almost impossible even under ideal conditions,” the researchers concluded. “Release can be easily facilitated through existing Alternatives to Detention (ATD) programs in which individuals can be released to their families and communities as they continue with their immigration legal proceedings.”

“The permanent ‘decarceration’ of immigration prisons is necessary to improve health both immediately, during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the future,” said Patler.

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Karen Nikos-Rose, News and Media Relations, 530-219-5472,

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