WASHINGTON, D.C. — In recent weeks, immigrant advocacy organizations have raised the alarm about the use of toxic chemical disinfectants in cramped ICE facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Detainees at ICE facilities have called in to hotlines for Freedom For Immigrants, Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice (ICIJ) and others to complain of bloody noses, nausea and respiratory issues from a chemical cleaner called HDQ Neutral.
According to the safety regulations on HDQ Neutral’s web page, the product should only be used outdoors or in a well-ventilated area. According to ICIJ, the cleaner is being used in poorly ventilated areas at detention centers. HDQ Neutral warns that even breathing in vapors from the disinfectant can be harmful, and in some cases it can cause skin burns and serious eye damage.
“At the GEO detention center in Aurora, Colorado we know that ICE and GEO are fumigating at least one pod twice a day,” said Jordan Garcia from the American Friends Service Committee of Colorado in a conference call earlier this week. “That’s causing major swelling, frequent nose bleeding and causing respiratory distress.”
The GEO Group manages detention centers across the US and internationally, and they were previously accused of not doing enough to stop the spread of coronavirus in their facilities.
Reports of cramped conditions that do not allow for social distancing and insufficient attempts to protect detainees from COVID-19 have been spreading for months.
Yet these newer claims allege that detainees have experienced additional adverse health effects beyond coronavirus because of the improper use of disinfectants to combat the spread of the disease.
A spokesperson for Freedom For Immigrants told Latino Rebels that their organization is calling for the release of all detainees from immigrant prisons, starting with those who are most medically vulnerable.
“ICE and its third party contractors have a long track record of human rights abuses without accountability,” Rebekah Entralgo, spokesperson for Freedom For Immigrants said over email. “The use of a chemical disinfectant with side effects including severe coughing and difficulty breathing at multiple ICE prisons is particularly concerning during a pandemic and could result in greater exposure to COVID-19 in detention.”
The group has filed multiple complaints over the past two months with ICE about the use of HDQ Neutral in their facilities, but has not yet received responses to any of those complaints.
Members of Congress have been taking action on the issue as well. Representatives Sylvia Garcia and Joaquin Castro visited ICE detention facilities in Texas this week. They and others have been calling on ICE to release all inmates who do not pose a public security risk.
Earlier this month, Representatives Mark Takano and Juan Vargas from California sent a letter to the acting director of ICE demanding an investigation into the reports of improper use of chemical disinfectants at facilities that include Adelanto Detention Center in California, as well as detention centers in Colorado, Washington state and elsewhere.
In an email to Latino Rebels, ICE denied the accusations.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) stands by its commitment to maintaining the highest facility standards of cleanliness and sanitation, safe work practices, and control of hazardous substances and equipment to ensure the environmental health and safety of detainees, staff, volunteers and contractors from injury and illness,” a spokesperson for ICE said. “Moreover, our staff follow recommendations outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for cleaning and disinfecting practices. Any assertion or claim to the contrary remains false, ongoing disinformation campaigns against the agency.”
ICE maintains a count of how many detainees have tested positive for coronavirus on its website. As of June 25, 2020 there were over 800 people with COVID-19 currently under ICE custody.
In April, a federal judge ordered ICE to begin considering how to release medically vulnerable detainees in April.
Ana Lucía Murillo is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. and the 2020 summer correspondent for Latino Rebels. She tweets from @analuciamur.