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No Clear Plan For How To Vaccinate ICE Detainees

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Immigration detention centers have been a hotbed of COVID-19, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement still has no clear plan for how to vaccinate everyone in its care. Houston Public Media's Elizabeth Trovall reports from Texas, which has the largest number of ICE detention centers.

ELIZABETH TROVALL, BYLINE: I recently talked to one Central American asylum seeker who spent six months in an immigrant detention center in South Texas crammed into one room with a hundred other people.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

TROVALL: I reached him on the phone from Austin, where he's been reunited with his young son. They were previously separated at the border by the Trump administration. His attorney asked that we not use his name because this case is pending. He says he saw COVID spread in detention. Even so, he says he wasn't tested until just before he was released, nor did he receive a COVID-19 vaccine. He was terrified.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

TROVALL: ICE has struggled to control the spread of COVID-19 in its detention centers, many of which are run by private contractors. Texas facilities report an infection rate of about 8%. Overall, the rate in the state is about .2%. ICE has taken steps to try to contain the virus, including releasing thousands of people. Still, 13,000 detainees have tested positive, and several have died. And according to the ACLU's Eunice Cho...

EUNICE CHO: ICE had no plan whatsoever to secure vaccines or provide vaccines for people in custody in detention centers. This is unlike what was happening in the prison system - in the federal prison system.

TROVALL: The Federal Bureau of Prisons has administered more than 160,000 doses with direct allocations from the federal government. When I asked ICE about their strategy, they told me it's up to state and local health departments to vaccinate detainees and that a limited number have begun to get vaccinated based on how many doses a state has and its priorities. Cho says that's led to a scattershot approach.

CHO: Depending on where people happen to be locked up in ICE detention will determine whether or not they have access to the vaccine.

TROVALL: When I ask the Texas Department of State Health Services, which is in charge of statewide vaccine allocation, at first they told me it's not their job to provide health care for people in federal custody like ICE detainees. But then I heard about 130 doses of the Moderna vaccine going to ICE detainees in north Houston. Omar Salgado is with the city's health department and says the facility asked the state for the vaccine.

OMAR SALGADO: It was a request that came in through the state. The state referred over to the county, and then the county referred over to us.

TROVALL: I went back to the Texas Health Department, and they changed their tune, saying that since mid-March they had actually approved two vaccine transfers to ICE facilities. Attorney Julie Pasch is with Deportation Defense Houston and says there should be better coordination.

JULIE PASCH: There should have been clarity from the very beginning, when the vaccine started becoming widely available, about whose responsibility it was to do what.

TROVALL: Pasch says it's great the Houston detention center is getting vaccines. But most aren't, including one in east Texas that's currently dealing with an outbreak. A local official there told me they hadn't heard from the state or the facility, so those detainees haven't been vaccinated. Even for the few facilities getting vaccines, Pasch says, there's still a lot of work to do, including overcoming hesitancy.

PASCH: There's going to be some percentage of the detained population that decides that they don't trust ICE, and that's from years of medical mistreatment that's rearing its head.

TROVALL: She says ICE also needs to come up with a clear plan to vaccinate everyone in lockup. That includes second doses and enough for future detainees.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Trovall in Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.