COVID-19 Confirmed at Taylor's ICE Detention Center
Still risking their lives
Cloaked within an industrial park and buffered by open fields, the T. Don Hutto Detention Center stays "out of sight and out of mind" for most Taylor residents, according to Mayor Brandt Rydell. That may change now that an outbreak of COVID-19 has taken hold at the controversial center, used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to house female detainees.
On June 11, ICE reported that one of its employees working at T. Don Hutto had become infected with the novel coronavirus. Three employees at CoreCivic, the private prison corporation that operates T. Don Hutto, tested positive for the virus beginning on June 1, said a company spokesperson. All have recovered and are back at work.
"This means the outbreak is already happening," said Ben King, an epidemiologist and clinical assistant professor in the public health program at UT-Austin. "I have high confidence that it will grow."
The disease continues its spread in Taylor and Williamson County, where active cases increased more than fourfold between June 6 and 21 and now number more than 700. "There's a significant amount of disease in Williamson County," said Derrick Neal, executive director of the Williamson County and Cities Health District.
But WCCHD can do little to monitor T. Don Hutto, Neal said. Though concerned for the women inside, he didn't think an outbreak would creep into the community. "The greatest danger is inside the facility," he said. "The women don't come and go. They just stay." But it's not clear that they are, in fact, staying. Advocates report that ICE continued to transfer migrants from T. Don Hutto throughout the spring; an open records request revealed that nearly 100 were deported in April and May alone.
Close quarters in detention centers create an ideal breeding ground for infections, King said, and facility personnel then expose their families and communities. Along with ICE officials, more than 160 CoreCivic employees work at the center. The COVID-19 cases among those personnel sparked terror among the women detained there, who reported that a CoreCivic employee had collapsed, struggling for breath, and was rushed away before their eyes.
No one would say what had happened. "I have a hard time sleeping at night," a woman wrote to Grassroots Leadership, an advocacy group, just six days before the first CoreCivic staffer tested positive, "because of the pain I feel and the worry of knowing that there is nothing we can do but wait."
King said the whole facility should be tested immediately; ICE would not tell the Chronicle how many staff or detainees have been tested. The agency responded to a congressional inquiry by stating that six detainees had been tested since February, each testing negative, and has announced it will offer voluntary testing to all women starting this week.
Even universal testing, said Dr. Allen Keller, associate professor at New York University's School of Medicine and director of its Center for Health and Human Rights, can't beat "the most effective public health tool we have – release." Since late February, when ICE officials transferred out 47 women – who, incidentally, were protesting poor medical care – the facility has dropped well below its roughly 500-bed capacity. It now houses 90 women "to account for social distancing," an ICE spokesperson wrote the Chronicle.
Nationwide, ICE's detained population has fallen by roughly 14,000; it now holds about 24,000 migrants. Unlike in prisons and jails, ICE has legal authority to free just about anyone it has detained. "It's been striking to me that ICE has not gone much farther as a public health measure in releasing more individuals," Keller said. "This is a non-criminal population in civil detention." No one at Hutto has a U.S. criminal record. Most are seeking asylum.
On April 20, Judge Jesus G. Bernal issued a nationwide injunction ordering all ICE facilities to quickly evaluate detained migrants for high-risk medical conditions and prioritize them for possible release. The legal purpose of immigration detention is to ensure that migrants attend their court hearings, he wrote in the order. "Participation in immigration proceedings is not possible for those who are sick or dying, and is impossible for those who are dead."
Two months later, immigration attorney Stephanie Taylor sees little evidence that Hutto's ICE officials have complied with the order. ICE has not proactively evaluated women for release, said Taylor, who helps medically vulnerable women request release from Hutto on humanitarian parole. "The onus had been put on the individual to flag themselves as high risk."
Even that is no guarantee of release. ICE has denied parole applications for women with rheumatoid arthritis, a metabolic disorder, asthma, and hypertension – all high-risk factors cited by the Centers for Disease Control. In its letter to Congress, ICE said these women were not "chronically ill" and that their pending cases – and in one instance, an imminent deportation – made them flight risks. ICE makes custody determinations on a case-by-case basis, its spokesperson wrote, "recognizing the unique circumstances posed by the COVID-19 pandemic."