The agency has been moving detainees who are asymptomatic but may be carrying COVID-19, immigration officials admitted during a federal court hearing.
U.S. immigration officials are not testing every detainee who gets transferred from one detention center to another for COVID-19, immigration officials admitted during a virtual federal court hearing held in Miami on Wednesday.
The reason given is they don’t have enough tests. This has led Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to test only those detainees who show symptoms of the novel coronavirus. Due to this shortage of tests, the agency has been transferring people who are asymptomatic but may be carrying the virus and potentially infecting other inmates, visiting relatives, and agency staff.
The hearings took place two days before a temporary order to reduce the detainee population at the South Florida ICE detention centers is set to expire. U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke — who issued the order — still has to decide whether to extend it for another week.
WATCH: Inmates across the U.S. live in crowded conditions, afraid of contracting COVID-19, Now This reports.
Judge Cooke initially ordered ICE to bring inmate populations down to 75 percent capacity in an effort to alleviate conditions in the crowded detention centers that she said amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment” as well as constitutional violations. As a result of the order, ICE transferred detainees out to centers in North Florida, Georgia, Texas, and Arizona, among other locations.
Judge Cooke Is “Perplexed”
But during the hearing, the judge said the agency’s decision to transfer inmates without testing them for COVID-19 left her “perplexed”, as it clearly defeated the purpose of her order.
Calling the move “a shell game of detainees”, the judge told Dexter Lee, an assistant U.S. attorney who represents ICE on its lawsuit seeking to release detainees at three South Florida detention centers:
“You realize you may be expanding the reach of the virus by transferring asymptomatic carriers, which would mean that you are… merely moving people from one side of the ledger to the other and never really doing what the purpose was [of my order], which is to lower the population, limit the risk and encourage social distancing.“
Lee responded that if ICE had the capacity, it would test everyone before transferring them to other facilities. But he added that “there has been a limitation in the number of tests that are available. The capacity has been a problem from the inception of the coronavirus epidemic in the United States and it continues to be so. That problem is the same within the walls of a detention facility as it is on the outside,” he said.
A Worrisome Revelation
But despite the agency’s reassurances that all who show symptoms of COVID-19 are tested for the virus before being moved to another location, an investigation conducted by the Miami Herald revealed that inmates have been transferred despite having fevers, body aches and pains, coughs and difficulty breathing.