Mica Rosenberg and Kristina Cooke, Reuters, March 11, 2019
The number of people amassed in immigration detention under the Trump administration has reached record highs, raising concerns among migrant advocates about disease outbreaks and resulting quarantines that limit access to legal services.
As of March 6, more than 50,000 migrants were in detention, according to ICE data.
Internal emails reviewed by Reuters reveal the complications of managing outbreaks like the one at Pine Prairie, since immigrant detainees often are transferred around the country and infected people do not necessarily show symptoms of viral diseases even when they are contagious.
Mumps can easily spread through droplets of saliva in the air, especially in close quarters. While most people recover within a few weeks, complications include brain swelling, sterility and hearing loss.
ICE health officials have been notified of 236 confirmed or probable cases of mumps among detainees in 51 facilities in the past 12 months, compared to no cases detected between January 2016 and February 2018. Last year, 423 detainees were determined to have influenza and 461 to have chicken pox. All three diseases are largely preventable by vaccine.
As of March 7, a total of 2,287 detainees were quarantined around the country, ICE spokesman Brendan Raedy told Reuters.
Ten Democratic members of Congress sent a letter on Feb. 28 to ICE acting Director Ronald Vitiello seeking more information about viral diseases at immigration detention centers in Colorado, Arizona and Texas. Lawmakers did not mention the Pine Prairie outbreak.
The first cases at Pine Prairie were detected in January in four migrants who had been recently transferred from the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Mississippi, according to internal emails.
Tallahatchie, run by private detention company CoreCivic Inc, has had five confirmed cases of mumps and 18 cases of chicken pox since January, according to company spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist. She said no one who was diagnosed was transferred out of the facility while the disease was active.
Tallahatchie houses hundreds of migrants recently apprehended along the U.S.- Mexico border, ICE said.
On Tuesday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan told reporters that changing demographics on the southwest border, with more immigrants from Central America traveling long distances, overwhelmed border officials and raised health concerns.
“We are seeing migrants arrive with illnesses and medical conditions in unprecedented numbers,” McAleenan said at a press conference.
Since January, the 1,094-bed Pine Prairie facility has had 18 detainees with confirmed or probable cases of mumps compared to no cases in 2018, according to ICE. As of mid-February, 288 people were under quarantine at Pine Prairie. Mejia said his quarantine ended on Feb. 25.
Detention centers in other states also have seen a rise in outbreaks.
There have been 186 mumps cases in immigration detention facilities in Texas since October, the largest outbreak in centers there in recent years, said Lara Anton, the press officer for the Texas Department of State Health Services.
In Colorado, at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility near Denver, run by the GEO Group, 357 people have been quarantined following eight confirmed and five suspected cases of mumps detected since February, as well as six cases of chicken pox diagnosed since the beginning of January, said Dr. Bernadette Albanese from the Tri County Health Department in Colorado.