LOS ANGELES — When Ruperto Robles, 60, came down with COVID-19 early last month, he spent days with fever, muscle aches and fatigue, isolated from others at the Yuba County Jail.
Robles is being held there by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, facing deportation. An uncle and cousin in Mexico died of complications from COVID-19. With diabetes and high blood pressure, Robles worried it could lead to his death, too.
“I would like to get the vaccine to block the possibility of getting sick again,” he said. “It’s sad to see on television how many people are dying from the coronavirus.”
Advocates for immigrants say state and federal officials have waffled over who is responsible for vaccinating the roughly 1,500 detainees in the care of ICE.
ICE spokesperson Alexx Pons said in a statement that the number of vaccine doses needed for detainees was reported to Department of Homeland Security planners earlier in the pandemic, but the DHS did not receive any direct allocation of vaccines for detainees. Vaccines received by detention facilities could be administered by medical personnel contracted or employed by ICE.
Pons said that vaccines for ICE detainees are being allocated by local and state health departments, and were incorporated into the COVID-19 vaccine shipments distributed by the federal government to each state.
“At this time, a limited number of ICE detainees have begun to receive the COVID-19 vaccine based on availability and priorities for vaccinating individuals in the state where they are currently detained,” he said.
California’s seven immigrant detention centers collectively can hold about 6,000 people. But the facilities have been operating at a fraction of that capacity as a result of court orders stemming from lawsuits over safety hazards amid the pandemic. All but one are managed by private prison companies.
As of Wednesday, 573 people at facilities in California had tested positive for COVID-19. The first person known to die in ICE custody from the virus was 57-year-old Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, a Salvadoran who was detained at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego in May. Nationwide, more than 9,500 detainees have tested positive for the virus and nine have died.
ICE detention centers have struggled to cope at every stage since the pandemic broke out. Outbreaks have plagued nearly every facility in the state. Detainees have responded to what they considered unsafe and unsanitary living conditions with hunger strikes and peaceful protests, leading in some cases to crackdowns by guards including use of force. Numerous lawsuits were filed over the lack of social distancing and testing.