Timeline of COVID-19’s Impact inside United States Detention Centers

2020… the year of Australia’s wildfires, fear of World War III, President Trump’s impeachment, NBA star Kobe Bryant’s death, Black Lives Matter protests, Lebanon’s massive explosion, the U.S. presidential election, and with few months left who knows what else is in store. The list can go on and on full of events that have shaped the year into what is believed to be the longest, yet somehow also the shortest period of our lifetime. All of these events and tragedies, some of which are heartbreaking and have truly changed many people’s perspective on life, are completely unrelated to what has been the number one topic of conversation for 2020… the coronavirus pandemic.   

The novel coronavirus, scientifically named SARS-CoV-2 but most commonly referred to as COVID-19, has unexpectedly transformed the lives of people from all around the world. A contagious respiratory disease that spreads by means of contaminated surfaces or being within close proximity of someone infected with the virus. Attacking the organs that are crucial to the basic bodily functions, COVID-19 has taken a toll on many and has been the cause for so many deaths around the globe. The widespread pandemic has altered human interaction, caused unemployment rates to skyrocket, has led economies to plummet to the ground, and has led many wondering what a future without the virus looks like. 


An illustration created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) depicting COVID-19. Source: CDC.


The pandemic has affected everyone in different ways, some to a greater degree than others, as has been reported extensively in the media. Countless stories of people unable to pay rent and the perplexing debates over wearing masks have been amply covered. 

The media has also covered the heroic stories of hospital workers working day and night  and the constant soaring numbers of COVID-19 cases. News reports have kept us up to date with everything related to the coronavirus. From the first case in Wuhan, China to the current question of when a vaccine will become available to the public. 

What topics and stories have been neglected and faded into the background? Is it reports of the 2020 Olympics cancellation, or news of murder hornets entering the U.S.? Similar to the little coverage it received before official declarations of a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), the threat of COVID-19 inside jails and the health risks it places on immigrants detained has been minimally addressed. 

There are approximately 5,000 correctional and detention facilities in the U.S. with an estimated 2.1 million adults in detention. This population, held in close living quarters, faces serious challenges to control the spread of infectious diseases, like COVID-19. Prevention measures, symptom screening, and quarantine are essential to halting the spread of disease. 

Prior to the rise of the pandemic, little was known of the appalling conditions immigrants face inside U.S. detention centers. The spread of COVID-19 has mobilized human rights advocates to investigate the welfare of immigrants detained in U.S. jails. 


Three children demand the release of their father detained inside a detention facility. Source: Media News Group | Hyoung Chang.


What changes, if any, have been enacted since the start of the pandemic?

To understand the progression of events related to the spread of the pandemic in detention centers and assess the effectiveness of the measures taken to confront it, a general timeline of major related steps, follows. 

Beginning in March and ending with August, a series of major events affected immigrants in U.S. detention centers. This report outlines the chronology of COVID-19’s impact on immigrants in detention centers and the limited efforts in place to ensure their safety during the pandemic. 


March through August, 2020

During this time period, the coronavirus was declared a pandemic, and a national emergency. Advocates launched investigations to advance human rights protections for immigrants in detention. By August, 2020, reports revealed that measures taken to ensure the safety of detainees had failed to protect them. 

March (Number of COVID-19 Cases of Immigrants in U.S. Detention Centers: 1)

News coverage of the impact of COVID-19 inside detention centers begins following the first COVID-19 case and death


Doctors protest outside a detention center located in Pompano Beach, Florida. They demand for the release of immigrants and accessible COVID-19 testing. Source: Vox | Joe Raedle.


The immigrant & Undocumented Community lacks access to healthcare

The pandemic revealed the vast inequality in access to healthcare for the most vulnerable members of society, especially affected undocumented immigrants as reported by the StatNews reporter Wendy Parment. As the virus reached immigrant communities, fear of seeking medical help prevented many from seeking medical attention. 

U.S. border policies placed immigrant lives at risk. The “Remain in Mexico” policy forced asylum seekers to wait in overcrowded, unsanitary camps along the U.S.-Mexico border for the duration of their immigration proceedings. This created dangerous health environments that could have been prevented by following professional recommendations during COVID-19.

Immigrants, Detention & COVID-19

During March, ICE had the authority to release immigrants in detention, while making detention mandatory for those convicted of crimes.  

This measure prompted advocacy groups to investigate the number of immigrants detained. According to Camilo Montoya-Galvez, an immigration reporter for CBS News, ICE’s detainee population in the U.S. during March went from 37,311 to 38,058 in the span of eight days. The sudden increase in the number of immigrants detained under U.S. immigration customs suggested that ICE had not released detainees without a criminal record.  


Immigrants stand in overcrowded U.S Immigration and Border Enforcement detention center located in McAllen, Texas. Source: The Washington Post | Josh Dawsey.


Following the rapid increase of migrants detained during the pandemic, ICE and CBP released a statement assuring the public that detainees were safe. ICE announced they would focus on people deemed as a public threat–detainees showing symptoms of the virus–, and delay deportation efforts for those who were asymptomatic.

ICE’s budget was expanded to fund quarantine capabilities and deportation flights. The outcome of this measure meant longer stays for immigrants in detention, or more extreme measures such as being sent back to their home country. 

Recalling ICE’s history of overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and failure to prevent disease inside detention facilities, advocates collected stories, such as the accounts of facilities holding 900 detainees in spaces with a maximum occupancy of 125; detainees standing on toilets to make more room, and the horrifying tragedy of seven children in custody dying of the flu

Organizations like the ACLU sent letters to ICE, and took steps to pursue legal action and sue them. The letters urged ICE to create emergency plans in case of an outbreak and called for the release of detainees at risk of contracting the virus. 

Doctors provided their medical expertise regarding the dangerous conditions and likelihood of outbreaks of COVID-19. At a time when social distancing was the first step in preventing the spread of the virus, doctors determined that social distancing would be impossible in immigration detention facilities. The small unventilated areas, lack of access to basic hygiene products, and the dearth of healthcare in detention centers made immigrants increasingly vulnerable to the virus. 


ACLU_Staser.Drawing depicting immigrants attempting to leave a detention center and seek medical assistance. Source: ACLU | Staser.


Lawmakers urged the Department of Homeland Security to regulate the laws and policies regarding immigration detention for the duration of the pandemic. House Democrats along with federal judges called for the creation of an emergency plan, the immediate release of immigrants who were in facilities with positive cases, and the suspension of immigration enforcement actions to ease the fear for immigrants seeking medical assistance. 

Perhaps the most well-recognized case urging for the release of immigrants in detention, specifically pertaining to immigrant children, was proposed by the U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee. Confronting the Trump Administration on the urgency of releasing immigrant children from detention centers during the pandemic, Judge Dolly Gee stated that if the administration failed to release them by April 10, an order for the  release of nearly 3,400 children would be placed.  

Towards the end of March, we began to see the first cases of COVID-19 in immigration detention facilities, which led to great panic from detained immigrants all around the country. The first ICE employee, a medical worker at Elizabeth Detention Center located in New Jersey, tested positive for the virus. Not too long after, a 31-year-old Mexican immigrant detained at Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, New Jersey became the first immigrant in detention to contract COVID-19

With the first cases of COVID-19 reported, immigrants suffered additional disadvantages that came along with being detained during a worldwide pandemic. First and foremost, social visitation was suspended. Detainees were not allowed any visitors. Similar to other public places, immigration courts closed nationwide, resulting in hearings coming to a halt or postponed. 

Specifically inside detention centers, detainees led protests and hunger strikes over lack of soap and toilet paper  which were met with the use of pepper spray and rubber balls.

Summarizing the reports they gathered from clients, immigration lawyers disclosed cases of immigrants coughing, fevers, and chills, all of which are symptoms of COVID-19. Reports detailed detainees who were visibly sick and had not been separated from the rest of the population. 

April (Number of COVID-19 Cases of Immigrants in U.S. Detention Centers: 449)

Entering the month of April, testimonies and specific examples of COVID-19’s effects on immigrants in detention surfaced. 


Detained immigrants holding up posters pleading for help and stating the duration of their hunger strikes. Source: Type Investigations. |


Fear of contracting the virus, led some detained immigrants to request voluntary deportation, while others hid symptoms of the virus to avoid being held in confined spaces used to punish detainees. 

Similar to what occurred in March, protests continued to be held by immigrants in detention, which included the refusal of meals and water. Immigrants were also denied access to video calls with families and reporters.

Reports detailed detained immigrants being fed only bread, lacking medical care, and not receiving COVID-19 testing.

Accounts of failure to establish social distance in dormitories were included in reports by U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett

Other examples of lack of protections were included in reports citing guards not wearing protective gear and detainees being locked in their cells for as long as 23 hours to increase social distancing. Immigrants pleaded for help and were teargassed


Handwritten statement sent to a federal judge explaining the sleeping arrangements, lack of food, and violation of rights inside a facility. Source: Miami Herald.


Advocacy groups like the ACLU continued to send letters to the Trump Administration and ICE to suspend immigration enforcement and release detainees. The ACLU filed lawsuits on behalf of detainees making it the ninth lawsuit in the past three weeks.  Judge Dolly Gee requested a fast tracking of the release of children in detention. 

At the end of April, new plans from ICE were set in motion as they released nearly 160 detainees and transferred detainees with symptoms to hospitals. 

May (Number of COVID-19 Cases of Immigrants in U.S. Detention Centers: 1,400)

Continuing to advocate for immigrants inside detention centers, the ACLU filed the Freedom of Information Act in May requesting access to records from ICE to evaluate the steps taken to protect detained immigrants. Public reports released in May included immigrants struggling to receive medical assistance inside detention facilities. According to the reports, detainees were told to “gargle salt water,” and were told “it’s just a cold.” 

 Immigrants protested and organized hunger strikes, which led to detainees access to masks and hand sanitizer. 


Meals that immigrant detainees were provided with after kitchens shut down in La Palma Correctional Facility. Source: Florence Immigrants and Refugees Rights Project.


More alarming protests were held in May. In one case, detainees barricaded themselves from ICE officers and destroyed property including washing machines, wall pipes, and windows. 

Aside from the protests and hunger strikes inside detention centers, advocates turned the focus on children in detention. ICE’s decision to not follow the CDC’s guidelines, such as overcrowded facilities, increased the stress of children in detention. High levels of stress and fear of contracting the coronavirus resulted in poor physical and mental health of children detained. 

ICE’s release of children from custody to reduce the population inside detention facilities caused family separations, referred to as “family separation 2.0.” 

During May, another major event heightened the fear among immigrants detained. The first death of a detainee by COVID-19 was reported at Otay Mesa Detention Center located in San Diego, California; a 57-year-old Salvadoran man named, Carlos Escobar-Mejia was confirmed deceased by ICE due to complications from COVID-19. 

ICE and CBP released new regulations. ICE’s , arrest operations were curtailed to focus on detainees considered at risk of contracting COVID-19. Meanwhile, the secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, reported the continued construction of the border wall. 

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, transfers of immigrants around the country continued.

Immigrants reported being loaded onto crowded buses in shackles along with detainees who looked visibly sick. No masks were provided, while shackles prevented them from covering their mouths. 

June (Number of COVID-19 Cases of Immigrants in U.S. Detention Centers: 2,500)

June 2020 records accounted for nearly 2,000 detainees participating in hunger strikes. Reports claimed that after pleading for protection from the virus, detainees were forced to clean the facilities themselves, some cleaning walls that were “covered in feces,” and without access to gloves. Immigrants who appeared sick prepared food. Detainees claimed people collapsed from illness.


Protester outside Adelanto ICE Processing Center holding signs urging to keep families united as well as not using hazardous materials inside facilities. Source: Daily Press | Martin Estacio.


Reports also describe that employees in the Adelanto Detention center in California sprayed HDQ Neutral, “50 times a day,” a disinfectant cleaner designed for cleaning non-porous environmental surfaces that causes bleeding and pain. According to Spartan Chemical Company, HDQ neutral is very harmful to humans and can cause skin burns, nausea, eye damage, and inflammation of the lungs. 

Recalling Judge Gee’s lawsuit, 124 children remained under ICE custody, in addition to the 1,000 or so unaccompanied immigrant children in DHS facilities. 

In response to orders to release immigrant children from detention, the Trump Administration offered two choices. Families could stay together in detention, which placed the whole family at risk of contracting COVID-19, or children could be transferred to a family member’s care that was not detained, which resulted in new versions of family separation. 

In the three family detention centers located in the U.S., 11 confirmed cases were found among detained parents and children. 

Immigration enforcement employees made public statements regarding ICE’s efforts to prevent an increase of COVID-19 cases in their facilities. Statements referenced how the agency kept 50-75 detainees in each pod.

July (Number of COVID-19 Cases of Immigrants in U.S. Detention Centers: 3,868)

The Vera Institute of Justice stated that numbers of COVID-19 cases in detention centers had been underreported. 

A lawsuit filed against the Trump Administration claimed that the U.S. government was interfering with the rights of judges and lawyers to truthfully speak on issues happening in detention centers during the pandemic. 


DARTMOUTH, MA – MAY 2: Bristol County Sheriff’s Dept Corrections officer Marie Garcia, an 18-year veteran, walks through rows of bunk beds in disarray in Dartmouth, MA on May 2, 2020, Extensive damage was done to the ICE facility at the Bristol County Sheriff’s correctional complex in Dartmouth by detainees who barricaded themselves inside for an hour and wrecked their sleeping area, bathroom and other areas they use. The incident started Friday night when 10 ICE detainees reported symptoms of COVID-19, but then refused to go to the medical unit for testing. Corrections officers used pepper spray and K-9’s to regain control and put the detainees in separate cells in the correctional complex. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images).


Aside from legal battles launched by advocates, a government watchdog decided to halt inspections of ICE facilities, and resume them “when it is safe to do so.” Without inspections, reporting on detention center conditions and the promotion of humanitarian protections were placed at risk. 

In response to Judge Gee’s order on the release of children, the U.S government stated parents would not be automatically released from detention in the event that children were released out of custody.

The numerous efforts by Judge Gee along with countless other advocates requests were not enough for ICE to release children in detention. As of July, ICE continued to detain around 350 parents and children, disregarding the judge’s order, according to the Associated Press of Texas

Nearing the end of July, ICE allowed for voluntary COVID-19 testing in the three family detention centers allocated in the U.S. 

The Department of Homeland Security also received new budget plans from the House Appropriations Subcommittee concerning fiscal year 2021. Summarizing the new budget plans, the committee called for a drastic decrease in funds for immigration detention. 

The budget proposed to cut DHS operations by 25%, eliminate family detention by the end of the year, withhold a 20-day limit on holding immigrants under custody, increase funding to expand alternative methods of detention, and avoid hiring more border patrol agents. 

August (Number of COVID-19 Cases of Immigrants in U.S. Detention Centers: 5,810)

Evaluating the data ICE released from March to the date of this publication, 39,443 COVID-19 tests have been done in immigration facilities, with 6,021 coming back positive for immigrants and 45 positive cases for ICE employees. Six immigrants in detention have died from COVID-19 complications. 

Data gathered from research shows 268 transfers of detainees in the months of April, May, and June. Some immigrants who were not detained inside a facility or were not transferred, faced deportation with the number coming in at 450. 

ICE’s current detainee population stands at 20,097, with 620 detainees with confirmed cases of COVID-19 still held in immigration custody. 

The final quantitative data of this timeline demonstrates the failure of immigration enforcement agencies to keep immigrant detainees safe during the coronavirus pandemic. Given the grave threat of COVID-19 in jails, preventive measures and humanitarian considerations are more urgent than ever. 

Featured Image: Photo courtesy of Jovanna Tosello from The Intercept

Valeria Lopez | University of California, Riverside
Valeria is a junior pursuing a major in Political Science/Law and Society with a minor in international relations. Coming from two immigrant parents who were born in Guadalajara, Jalisco Mexico, she has seen first hand the hardships immigrants face when moving to America. Seeing the difficulties immigrants deal with on a daily basis in America, it has inspired her to pursue a career as an immigration and civil rights lawyer. She has a passion for fighting for the rights of not only immigrants but for individuals who face racial and social injustices. She wishes to raise awareness about immigration issues such as the inhumane conditions children and adults experience in detention camps as well as helping families attain their documents to be able to work and live in the U.S. In the future she would like to start a charity that helps immigrant families overcome the difficulties that come along with living in a foreign country that is not always welcoming to immigrants. Valeria hopes that her work as an immigration writer will allow her to spread the stories of immigrants and that her career in immigration and civil rights law will allow her to create change for the Latino immigrant community.