After an extensive legal battle over its handling of COVID-19 at detention facilities, ICE will not provide basic information on how many detainees have been vaccinated at its Buffalo (Batavia) Center upstate. Here’s what City Limits has been able to find out.
While New York City is experiencing a new phase in the pandemic, in which people without masks are reconvening and embracing both indoors and out, the crisis is still raging inside certain facilities housing immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Several detention centers across the country are seeing new spikes in COVID-19 cases, while vaccination rates have yet to take off among detainees.
While both nationally and locally, creative campaigns aim to increase the number of people getting vaccinated—to the point that New York has been touted as a vaccination hot spot for tourists—it’s not clear how many ICE detainees have gotten the shots. There is no publicly available tracker of ICE vaccination efforts at either the state or national level, though the agency does track COVID-19 cases by facility online.
On May 13, during a Congressional hearing, ICE acting director Tae Johnson said that vaccine priority levels and allocations for immigrant detainees vary from state to state. He estimated that 20 percent of ICE detainees nationwide have had at least one shot, but was unsure of the exact number. “Let me confirm that that is the case,” Johnson told lawmakers. Representative Laureen Underwood, from Illinois, countered that based on data she had access to, the percentage may be much lower, potentially around just 7 percent. By comparison, more than 62 percent of the U.S. adult population has gotten the first vaccine dose as of June 2, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Moreover, ICE has been unwilling to provide information on how many of those being held at the largest detention center in New York State, the Buffalo (Batavia) Federal Detention Facility, have been vaccinated. Currently, there are over 100 immigrants detained in Buffalo, according to ICE. City Limits has been able to partially track down how the vaccination effort is going there—how many detainees have received a dose of the vaccine or how many are fully vaccinated, or how many have refused the vaccine as of April.
A total of 118 cases of Coronavirus have been reported inside Buffalo’s detention center since the pandemic began in 2020, 49 of those in April 2020. In the last three weeks, ICE says they have had no positive COVID-19 cases at the facility.
An unclear picture
Advocates have been calling for greater oversight of COVID-19 at immigrant detention centers since the crisis broke out last year. During the early months of the pandemic, several detainees were transferred to the Buffalo detention center from the Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, New Jersey, which reported the first positive case in late March.
By May 2020, the New York Civil Liberties Union and Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York (PLSNY) won a federal class-action lawsuit to have medically at-risk individuals at the Batavia center treated according to CDC guidelines. And in July of last year, City Limits reported that 12 detainees who tested positive for the Coronavirus were transferred to their countries of origin from the Buffalo facility.
Public defenders had to sue again once vaccination began in New York to ensure access to the COVID-19 vaccine for incarcerated people and detainees, a process which finally began in February. However, organizations such as NYCLU, PLSNY, and The Legal Aid Society still do not have detailed information on how the vaccination process is unfolding at the Buffalo facility.
“I don’t have exact numbers,” says John Peng, an attorney with PLSNY, who in late March was in charge of finding and scheduling appointments for eight ICE detainees to receive the Pfizer vaccine at medical centers outside the Buffalo detention center. (This only happened once, because officials later began vaccinating detainees inside the detention center itself.)
What is known is that as of April 14, prior to the CDC-recommended pause of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, 26 Buffalo detainees had received the J&J vaccine, and 27 declined it. Of the eight detainees whom Peng helped to get the first Pfizer dose, seven got the second (one of the initial eight was released from custody before getting their second shot). Another two detainees received their first dose later and were scheduled for the second dose in May.
In May, through a consent order, ICE was asked to continue to provide vaccines to all people arriving at the Buffalo detention center, as well as to those who had initially refused it so they could request it at another time. “This only applies to Buffalo,” Peng says by phone.
ICE says all detainees at the Buffalo detention center have been offered the vaccine, as well as new arrivals, though declined to provide specifics.
Over in New Jersey
In January, when vaccination was just beginning inside the Hudson County Jail in New Jersey, City Limits reported that half of the 54 ICE detainees there refused to be vaccinated, with only 27 receiving the first dose of the Moderna vaccine.
Since then, the population at the Hudson County Jail has been reduced to 42 ICE detainees. As of May 25, 28 of them were fully vaccinated and 14 had refused the shot.
Ron Edwards, director of the Hudson County Department of Corrections & Rehabilitations, says via email that the vaccine is offered daily to those in custody and that in the past three weeks, the facility has had no new COVID-19 cases.
Advocates say there is distrust on the part of detainees about receiving the vaccine at detention centers or county jails, as well as a mistaken belief among some that if they get vaccinated, it will reduce their chances of release.
“The vaccination has brought an additional layer of confusion,” Peng says.
A coalition of social organizations called the COVID-19 Coalition for Justice wrote a letter on May 19 to Gov. Andrew Cuomo asking for more information on how vaccination campaigns were being conducted, and pointed out that there was a “lack of transparency in the whole process,” the letter says.
The case of the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility is a clear example.
Incarcerated individuals, the letter states, “distrust the correctional health system and the care it provides. They have seen or have themselves experienced, substandard medical care and had their medical concerns ignored.”
For example, attorneys representing those in detention centers say their clients sometimes do not have access to an interpreter or a translation service during medical checkups.
Another concern that may not be helping vaccination rates is that “there have also been high rates of vaccine refusal by correctional staff, who may be spreading their own fears to incarcerated individuals,” reads the letter. Delaney Rohan, an attorney with Legal Aid Society, says he knows of two ICE detainees at the Orange County Jail in New York who heard that both a guard and a nurse will not get the vaccine.
Furthermore, both attorneys and immigrant advocates are concerned that the information shared with detainees about vaccination may not be sufficient for incarcerated people to make informed decisions.
At the Hudson County Jail, Edwards says ICE detainees receive the same information about the COVID-19 vaccine as what the CDC and the New York and New Jersey Health Departments are distributing to the public, and there have been no changes on this front.