Whistleblowers urge Biden administration to do more to vaccinate detained immigrant population

Three whistleblowers are urging the Biden administration to do more to vaccinate immigrants in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention amid mounting criticism over the agency’s response to the pandemic within its facilities, according to a letter obtained by CNN.

Friday’s letter comes as Vice President Kamala Harris visited the US-Mexico border to, in part, highlight the administration’s approach to immigration policy, compared with that of the previous administration, and as the Biden administration encourages Americans to get vaccinated.

But three subject medical experts who are contracted with the Department of Homeland Security and represented by the Government Accountability Project say the administration isn’t doing enough to vaccinate immigrants in detention.

“The Biden administration has made great strides in controlling the pandemic in many areas of the country, largely by concentrating on vaccine distribution to the general public. Immigrant detention settings, however, continue to be a significant source of spread for COVID and disproportionate harm to detainees, workers and the public, yet DHS has still not implemented a comprehensive plan to address the spread of COVID in immigration detention facilities,” reads the letter, directed to committee leadership in Congress.

In a statement to CNN on Friday, ICE said it’s working with federal partners to receive its own allocation of vaccines “for immediate, nationwide distribution and anticipates receiving additional vaccines in the future.”

“As part of the Department of Homeland Security’s vaccination efforts, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is further expanding its vaccination efforts to include voluntary vaccinations for individuals in its care and custody,” the agency said.

Drs. Scott Allen, Pamela McPherson and Josiah “Jody” Rich shared their concerns with the department’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in February and the White House coronavirus response team and the Covid-19 Health Equity Task Force in March, after flagging similar warnings about mitigating the spread of Covid-19 in congregate settings last year.

Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, ICE detention facilities have wrestled with a growing number of positive cases, totaling more than 18,000 confirmed cases and nine deaths. As of June 23, there are 765 Covid-19 cases in ICE custody, according to agency data.

There are more than 26,000 immigrants in ICE custody, as of June 18.

The administration has launched plans to vaccinate unaccompanied migrant children who fall under the custody of the Health and Human Services Department.

“We are working site by site to ensure that the Covid vaccine is also made available as part of that suite of medical care to every eligible child,” JooYeun Chang, acting assistant secretary for HHS’ Administration for Children and Families, told lawmakers during a House panel earlier this month.

In internal guidance obtained by CNN, the HHS office charged with the care of unaccompanied migrant children cited US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations that all people 12 and older receive the Covid-19 vaccine. That includes children in the department’s care.

ICE — an agency under DHS — previously described vaccination procedures in a document titled “Covid-19 Pandemic Response Requirements,” putting the onus on detention facilities to contact their states’ vaccine resources, such as state or county departments of health, to obtain vaccines.

In late May, the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed dozens of lawsuits against ICE during the pandemic, called the lack of a vaccine strategy for the detained population a “failure” in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and acting ICE Director Tae Johnson.

Allen, McPherson and Rich — the three medical experts who wrote to Congress — say in their letter that they have not seen a “comprehensive and appropriately aggressive” plan.

“The current plan of leaving vaccination procurement for individuals detained by ICE to local health authorities obscures lines of responsibility and is likely to fail,” the letter continues.

Only a limited number have been vaccinated, in part because of the differing priority guidance across states, Johnson, the acting ICE director, told lawmakers in May.

“Because of that sort of variance, we have been looking at working with CDC and HHS to just see if we can get our own batch of vaccines, deploy them across the country to the ICE detainee population,” Johnson said. As of May 5, some 2,707 detainees had received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine and 1,229 were fully vaccinated, he said in testimony.

Rich underscored the urgency behind vaccinating detained individuals, given the risk of spread.

“It just makes common sense,” he told CNN. “It’s unconscionable not to do it.”