“Hotbeds of Infection:” New Report Details Contribution of ICE’s Failed Pandemic Response to Exponential COVID-19 Rates

For Immediate Release: 
Wednesday, December 9, 2020
ICE detention facilities are responsible for more than 245,000 COVID-19 cases throughout the U.S.

Washington, DC — Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) failed pandemic response substantially increased the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S., according to “Hotbeds of Infection,” a new report released today by Detention Watch Network. Between May and August of 2020, ICE detention facilities were responsible not only for thousands of COVID cases in detention centers, but contributed to more than 245,000 additional COVID-19 cases in communities throughout the country.

Key findings of the report include:

  • Counties with ICE detention centers were more likely to report COVID-19 cases earlier in the pandemic and more likely to confront a serious outbreak (at least 15 cases), a major outbreak (more than 250 cases) and a health care emergency (more than 2,500 confirmed cases). 
  • Nearby counties to a detention facility were more likely to confront a serious COVID-19 outbreak in the spring of 2020. 
  • Between May and August, ICE detention facilities were responsible for over 245,000 COVID-19 cases throughout the country. These cases were concentrated in multicounty economic areas where ICE facilities are located.  If the cases linked to ICE were the reported caseload of a country, that country would have ranked 16th in the world by total cases, outranking Germany, France, and Canada.

The report was authored by Dr. Gregory Hooks, Professor of Sociology at McMaster University, and Bob Libal, a Texas-based immigration and criminal legal reform advocate and policy analyst. It analyzes the growth in COVID-19 cases in counties and multi-county economic areas with ICE detention centers, holding constant a host of other factors that may contribute to the spread of COVID-19.   

“ICE detention facilities have become hotbeds of infection during the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Setareh Ghandehari, Advocacy Manager at Detention Watch Network. “The abysmal conditions that are intrinsic to the fundamentally flawed detention system have been exacerbated with COVID-19. People in detention, immigration advocates and public health officials warned of these risks as early as March and made clear the only way forward was to immediately release people from detention, but ICE refused to heed these warnings and the massive public outcry demanding to ‘free them all.’”

“The consequences of ICE’s callous disregard for the health of people detained and its own staff were magnified many times over by the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 in communities across the country,” says Dr. Gregory Hooks, co-author of the report. “Counties with ICE facilities were more likely to experience outbreaks of COVID-19, both small and large, in the spring, and over the summer, the impacts rippled outward, extending to nearby communities and counties.” 

“Hotbeds of Infection” adds to a growing body of research documenting ICE’s mismanagement, grievous medical negligence, and lack of transparency. Multiple reports this past year reveal that people working in ICE detention centers do not regularly wear PPE, do not provide adequate soap or PPE to people in detention, and do not offer adequate or regular testing. ICE has also evaded court orders requiring them to reduce the number of people in detention.

“ICE’s failure to manage the COVID-19 pandemic spread the deadly disease within its detention system and far beyond detention walls,”says Bob Libal, co-author of the report. “People working at detention centers travel to and from their homes and communities each day, potentially carrying the virus, and ICE has refused to stop its irresponsible transfer of people throughout the detention system during the pandemic.”

The report recommends that ICE immediately heed the advice of public health experts by significantly and quickly reducing the number of people in detention; halting enforcement activities; stopping all transfers within the immigration detention system, as well as transfers from state and local jails and prisons; and adopting a moratorium on deportations in conjunction with the previous recommendations.

Read the full report here.


Detention Watch Network (DWN) is a national coalition of organizations and individuals working to expose and challenge the injustices of the United States’ immigration detention and deportation system and advocate for profound change that promotes the rights and dignity of all persons. Founded in 1997 by immigrant rights groups, DWN brings together advocates to unify strategy and build partnerships on a local and national level to end immigration detention. Visit detentionwatchnetwork.org. Follow on Twitter @DetentionWatch.