Which Is Safer, ICE Detention or Rockland County, N.Y.?

When it comes to the Wuhan Coronavirus, you'd be surprised

By Andrew R. Arthur on May 15, 2020

Topic Page: Covid-19 and Immigration

One of the main points that has been made by those calling for the release of detainees from immigration detention (of late) has been the likelihood that detainees could be exposed in detention to the Wuhan coronavirus. I have previously explained that detainees are safer in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody, in part, because of the fact that they would have access to healthcare that they likely would not have. It turns out, they might just be safer from transmission, as well, depending on where they would go.

First, ICE custody. According to the agency, it was detaining 29,675 aliens as of April 25, 2020 (the latest population statistic available on its website). As of May 12, 2020, 881 ICE detainees had tested positive for the illness, a rate of 2,969 per 100,000.

Johns Hopkins University (JHU) publishes a website that details the number of Wuhan coronavirus cases by county. JHU reports that, as of May 12, there were 31,472 confirmed cases in Westchester County, N.Y., or 3,253 per 100,000 population. That is not even the highest. Rockland County, N.Y., had 12,504 cases, for 3,893 per 100,000.

Westchester and Rockland may be outliers, but not by much. On that date, there were also 41,746 cases in the Bronx, a rate of 2,915 per 100,000. Nassau County had 38,434 cases, or 2,829 per 100,000.

I will note that the ICE figure itself may be deceiving — on the high side. The agency notes: "This list is cumulative. Some detainees may no longer be in ICE custody and may have since tested negative for the virus." This means that the number of aliens who have been detained is not static, as likely thousands of aliens have passed through the system since the first cases of the illness were diagnosed in the United States on January 24 (according to the CDC). Some aliens were released or deported (including aliens who had previously tested positive), and new aliens were detained. In other words, that 29,675 is not a set figure, but a one-day snapshot.

In addition, there are outliers on the ICE list itself. For example, there were 149 diagnosed cases in Otay Mesa Detention Center near San Diego (almost 17 percent of the ICE total), 72 at the Bluebonnet Detention Facility in Anson, Texas (8 percent), and 64 at the Richwood Correctional Center in Monroe, La. (more than 7 percent). Those three facilities represent almost one-third of the ICE total number of confirmed cases, which is all the more striking when one considers that ICE utilizes 211 detention facilities in total.

The figures for the counties in New York above, however, are likely fairly static. I seriously doubt that there has been a wave of new arrivals moving to those locations since Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) issued a stay-at-home order in the Empire State on March 20, "mandating that 100% of workforce must stay home, excluding essential services."

So, are detainees safer from the Wuhan coronavirus in detention? If they were going to the greater New York area, the answer is likely yes.