At least 50 people being held in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody at New York’s Orange County Correctional Facility are experiencing COVID-19-like symptoms, according to organizations providing free legal representation to those detained at the site.
Since last week, advocates and attorneys with the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) have been hearing from detainees at the facility, located in Goshen, NY, who say they are experiencing symptoms. Public defender organizations Brooklyn Defender Services, Legal Aid Society, and The Bronx Defenders—representing about 60 detainees in the facility—have been communicating with each other to share and cross-compare information.
As of Jan. 24, the COVID-19 ICE Detainee Tracker shows only five confirmed cases of people currently under isolation or monitoring at the facility, and 26 cumulative total cases since testing began in February 2020. ICE did not immediately respond to City Limits’ questions regarding the current number of cases, number of vaccinated detainees, or detainees’ conditions. At ICE facilities nationwide, COVID-19 infections have surged by 520 percent since the start of 2022, per CBS News.
In a statement, Jose Luis, who is currently incarcerated at Orange County Correctional Facility, told NYIFUP providers that “the quarantine section is full, and there are a lot of sick people everywhere.”
“Correction officers are letting people out of the intake process without knowing their COVID-19 results, so you don’t know who’s sick and who isn’t. We are waiting so long for medical care. I am trying to stay safe by just lying alone in my bed in my cell, but I feel like soon I’ll become a vegetable, I’m becoming weaker by the day,” his statement said.
One NYIFUP client said they were told by a staff person at the facility that they didn’t want to test people because they don’t want the numbers to go up, according to the group. Legal Aid’s NYIFUP Deputy Attorney, Sharone Schwartz Kaufman, said that ICE is not telling detainees their test results directly, so many are only notified through their attorneys. But most ICE detainees don’t have an attorney; since immigration detention is classified as civil detention, they do not have a right to counsel as they would in criminal cases. (The NYIFUP system was created for immigrants in removal proceedings before an immigration judge, and since July 2014, the program has provided representation to low-income immigrants at the Varick Street Immigration Court in Manhattan.)
This isn’t the first time the Orange County Jail facility has made headlines: ICE detainees there previously made allegations of medical neglect, verbal abuses, retaliation and disability discrimination, prior to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant. On Nov. 12, the Immigrant Rights Clinic at NYU School of Law filed a complaint to the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Hotline (CRCL) detailing the conditions they say one of their clients—who had been diagnosed with several mental health disorders—had been subjected to.
“L.G.C. [detainees’ name initials] has attempted suicide multiple times in detention, and after each incident, Orange County Correctional Facility has reacted by putting him into medical isolation (solitary confinement) without access to a doctor, without mental health treatment, and without access to adequate food, water, or other basic necessities,” described the letter.
Advocates say Orange County jail has also not provided easy access to vaccination or explained booster plans to their clients, and in one instance, a detainee hasn’t been able to get Pfizer’s second dose. Moreover, according to Schwartz Kaufman, detainees have only been provided with one surgical mask for the duration of their detention, and none of the clients have been given an N-95 mask, as suggested by the CDC following the eruption of the Omicron variant.
In a statement, NYIFUP said “we condemn the lack of transparency from jail officials and from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Their refusal to provide critical information about how they are addressing the outbreak and the jail’s quarantine policy is unacceptable.”
“This outbreak underscores the need to pass long term solutions like the Dignity Not Detention Act,” said Assembly Member Karines Reyes. The Dignity Not Detention bill would terminate existing state contracts and prohibit governmental entities from entering into agreements to incarcerate immigrants in detention facilities; A similar law was signed in August by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy.
Orange County Correctional Facility is one of two sites in New York where ICE detainees were transferred after those New Jersey facilities stopped contracting with the federal agency. ICE currently lists seven New York facilities on its website, though only five of those were in use in 2020-2021, according to advocates. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, 150 people were held in ICE custody at the Orange County site as of Dec. 27.
“One simple way Corrections can address lack of space to quarantine is by ending contracts with ICE to hold our neighbors facing deportation in prisons. The Governor must immediately pass the Dignity Not Detention Act,” said Assembly Member Harvey Epstein.
Several of the advocates, attorneys, and elected officials are once again urging the immediate release of ICE detainees, the approval of the legislation and an investigation into the medical practices and conditions at Orange County Correctional Facility.
“No one should ever be exposed to such adverse conditions, but there are countless individuals who are detained by ICE and housed at the facility simply due to their immigration status,” Reyes added. “They must be released to alleviate pressure on the system to allow for better containment of COVID-19.”