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May 11, 2020; ProPublica

A paper published Wednesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that droplets emitted during speech can contribute “substantially” to the spread of COVID-19. This is especially frightening inside of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities, which are among the most tightly confined spaces in the country.

Researchers wrote in a study that the simple act of talking generates airborne droplets that can remain suspended in the air for eight to 14 minutes and are eminently capable of transmitting the novel coronavirus. This adds to what the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) knows of COVID-19 transmission by droplets in coughs and sneezes.

The transmission via speech of COVID-19 means even greater risk for the almost 30,000 detained immigrants throughout the country.

“We are too close, too close to each other, breathing the same air. We are trapped,” said a detainee in Louisiana named Ana to a CBS reporter in Spanish.

ICE reported 965 cases among detainees in its facilities out of 1,804 detainees tested, according to its online report from May 14, 2020. With over half of the tests coming back positive, compared to a national average of positive tests closer to 20 percent, transmission is clearly a much higher risk inside detention facilities. And, ProPublica notes, the actual number of COVID-19 cases among detained immigrants is likely much higher, as ICE has tested only about five percent of its population of detainees.

In addition, detainees are mobile, often being transferred between detention facilities and from local jails. And while ICE claims to have officially suspended large-scale raids in April, it continues to detain new people, immigrants who the agency considers to be a vague “criminal or public safety threat.”

Even before the pandemic, ICE facilities had been called out for their medical negligence and poor sanitary conditions, among other human rights abuses.

The first reported COVID-19 death in an ICE facility was that of Carlos Escobar-Mejia on May 9th, a 57-year-old Salvadoran man detained at the Otay Mesa Detention Center—located near San Diego, California—which has become the largest detention center COVID-19 cluster in the country with 149 confirmed cases. With the continued spread of COVID-19 throughout ICE facilities, there are likely to be more.

According to epidemiologists who created a model to estimate COVID-19 transmission within ICE facilities, it is possible that within a 90 day period, between 72 percent and 100 percent of ICE detainees could contract COVID-19 given current conditions. And even in the most optimistic of the scenarios modeled, the spread of COVID-19 cases would overwhelm ICU beds in a 10-mile radius from the ICE facilities.

The #FreeThemAll call to action across social media has encouraged the release of people in jails, prisons, and detention centers during the pandemic. It’s a rallying cry taken on by protesters of mass incarceration and immigrant detention throughout the country: over 20 human rights nonprofits came together on May 14, 2020, to use their grassroots bases to press six governors to release all immigrants and asylum-seekers.

#FreeThemAll is also the language used by the Detention Watch Network, a national coalition to abolish immigrant detention, in its response to the pandemic. Its demand is simple: “The government can and should release all people from detention immediately.”

“This administration is prioritizing their anti-immigrant agenda over the wellbeing and survival of those in its custody in addition to those working at detention centers and jails across the country,” said Bárbara Suarez Galeano, organizing director of Detention Watch Network, in a press release for its report about the pandemic. “This puts us everyone at risk—all people need to be released now.”

The vast majority (about 70 percent) of detention centers are run by private for-profit companies like GEO Group and CoreCivic, and the Trump administration has expanded the use of rural ICE detention centers, especially in the South, as a way of avoiding the high costs associated with urban operation.

Many people currently detained in ICE facilities have the possibility of being released on a cash bond, although these average at $14,500 and are unaffordable for many families. The California-based nonprofit Freedom For Immigrants hosts a National Bond Fund to fund the release of detained immigrants who are fighting their cases.

While ICE released over 700 detainees by early April—elderly detainees, those with certain medical conditions, and pregnant detainees—there are still over 40 times that number of people still in ICE custody nationwide.

The release of all detained immigrants may seem complicated or impractical, but we are at a moment of great change. As NPQ previously reported, the time to end mass incarceration is now. For the sake of public health, and out of respect for human lives, a mass release of people back to their families would both mitigate extreme health risks and create new understandings of what is possible when enough people demand it.—Emily Weyrauch