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Two ICE detention center workers in South Florida test positive for coronavirus

The staffers, who work for Akima Global Services, the government contractor that operates the facility for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, were confirmed to have tested positive on Monday by the federal agency.

Two employees who work at the Krome detention center, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility that houses immigration detainees in Miami-Dade, tested positive for the coronavirus, ICE officials confirmed.

The staffers, who work for Akima Global Services, the government contractor that operates the facility for ICE, were confirmed to have tested positive on Monday by the federal agency.

“Two ICE contracted employees at the Krome Processing Center have tested positive for COVID-19,” an ICE official told the Miami Herald on Monday. “The (Akima Global Services) employees are self-quarantining at home.”

All individuals who have had contact with people that have tested positive for coronavirus have been isolated as a group in their housing units, the agency said.

“Detainees are being tested for the virus in line with (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance. In some cases, medical staff at ICE detention facilities are collecting specimens from ICE detainees for processing at a commercial or public health lab. In other cases, including when a detainee requires a higher level of care, they are sent to a local hospital and may be tested at the discretion of the treating provider at the hospital. At this point no detainees have tested positive for COVID-19 at Krome,” officials said in a statement.

ICE did not disclose when the infected workers were on the premises last, or whether any detainees were exposed. AGS did not respond to numerous phone calls and emails seeking comment.

For about a month, ICE has published on its website the number of confirmed coronavirus cases for its detainees and federal employees nationwide. As of Monday afternoon, 13 detainees and seven ICE detention center employees nationwide have tested positive for the virus.

However, those numbers do not reflect the number of third-party contractors that work at ICE facilities who have tested positive for COVID-19. It also doesn’t make mention of how many people at their facilities have been tested or are being monitored for the virus.

The agency told the Herald last week “that isn’t something we have to provide.” An ICE spokesman on Sunday added that it isn’t ICE’s role to publish or discuss information about a third-party.

According to the Glades County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the Glades County detention center for ICE, as well as GEO Group, which operates the Broward Transitional Center for ICE, none of the detention centers have any positive cases of COVID-19 or anybody awaiting results.

According to the ICE data, as of March 2, the agency had 222 detention centers across the country, of which five or fewer of those facilities aren’t contracted out to a third party company.

Heidi Altman, director of policy for the National Immigrant Justice Center, called ICE’s decision not to publish confirmed coronavirus cases for its third-party contractors a “loophole.”

“But it’s not by accident that ICE has set up its detention network in a way that it is opaque, lacking in transparency and completely susceptible to the types of vulnerabilities and abuses that create the harm in masse here that we are seeing,” Altman said. “Actual ICE employees represent a small fraction of the number of people working in and out of their detention system. The number that ice is reporting offers little meaningful reflection of the actual risk and actual spread of the virus at their facilities. ICE’s detention system is in reality a chaotic web of more than 200 jails and prisons where ICE has little to no meaningful operational control over who comes and who goes and what directives are followed with regard to the care of those behind bars.”

The Krome detention center, located at 18201 SW 12th St. in Southwest Miami-Dade, can hold about 1,000 detainees at a time. The facility opened in 1980 to house an influx of Cuban and Haitian refugees. The population has fluctuated over the years based on conditions in Central and South America. Since 2006, the population has fluctuated between 550 and 875 people, according to a 2019 report published by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Americans for Immigrant Justice.

Records show AGS is contracted through 2024 to handle the daily operations of the facility, including food services and funds-processing for detainees. Included in this contract is a mandatory minimum of 450 occupied beds.

In the past month, quarantines in immigration detention centers in Miami-Dade, Broward and Glades Counties have mounted after several detainees developed flu-like symptoms and were sent to the hospital.

But detainees aren’t the only ones getting sick. According to three federal asylum office workers — government employees who interview detainees inside detention centers for their asylum cases — several employees tested positive for COVID-19 after visiting the Krome office. Other court staffers have been exposed to family members or friends with the virus and have still been forced to come to work, they said.

On Sunday, after nearly 23 years of housing immigration inmates for the federal government, the Monroe County detention center in Key West abruptly severed its contract with ICE. Monroe detainees are regularly transferred to and from immigration court in Miami-Dade for their federal hearings. Sources told the Herald that the frequent trips to the crowded facility in Miami had the sheriff’s office uneasy over the possibility that the coronavirus could easily be transmitted.

The influx and constant transfers of inmates across the country has sparked national cries from immigration advocates, who are asking that immigration detention centers release inmates amid the health crisis. Over the past few weeks, local and state governments across the United States have reduced their jail and prison populations in an effort to prevent a coronavirus outbreak behind bars.

“Consequently, federal and state prisons have already started to engage in the early release of many individuals,” said Jessica Schneider, director of the detention program at Americans for Immigrant Justice. “ICE, too, has the authority and discretion to engage in the mass release of immigrants who are being held on merely a civil violation. AI Justice calls on ICE to release immigrants in its custody before lives are needlessly lost.”

In a letter last month to governors nationwide, global human rights group Amnesty International said: “One of the most critical steps you can take to immediately reduce the spread of COVID-19 is to utilize your public health and licensing authority to instruct federal immigration detention facilities, county and local jails to substantially reduce their detainee occupancy capacity.”

ICE did not respond to inquiries from the Miami Herald on whether this measure has been considered. The governor’s office has not responded to requests for comment.

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