ICE keeps transferring detainees around the country, leading to COVID-19 outbreaks

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The immigrants began to show symptoms in late April, about a week after arriving at the Rolling Plains Detention Center in Haskell, Texas.

They had been held in dorms with other recent transfers, according to a county official. First three detainees tested positive for COVID-19. Then 20 more. As of Friday, 41 immigrants detained at Rolling Plains had been infected. Just three county residents have tested positive.

In Pearsall, Texas, 350 miles south, transfers turned another detention center into a virus hotspot. Frio County had just a single confirmed case of COVID-19 in early April. Then two detainees who had recently been moved to Pearsall’s South Texas ICE Processing Facility tested positive, ICE told county officials. Thirty-two immigrants have now been diagnosed, almost 90 percent of the state’s official COVID-19 tally in Frio County.

“Our vulnerability is absolutely that detention center,” said Frio County Commissioner Jose Asuncion. “Once that facility is exposed, the employees are coming in and out, there’s no way to contain it.”

In the past several months, while most Americans have been ordered to shelter at home, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has shuffled hundreds of people in its custody around the country. Immigrants have been transferred from California to Florida, Florida to New Mexico, Arizona to Washington State, Pennsylvania to Texas.

These transfers, which ICE says were sometimes done to curb the spread of coronavirus, have led to outbreaks in facilities in Texas, Ohio, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana, according to attorneys, news reports and ICE declarations filed in federal courts.

ICE’s actions have prompted an outcry from Democratic senators, who on Friday said the transfers had spread the virus and demanded Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf bring them to a halt.

“Until ICE halts transfers and expands testing, the agency will continue to exacerbate conditions for individuals in ICE custody and for all the communities surrounding its facilities,” reads the letter signed by 18 senators.

Since ICE announced its first case in March, COVID-19 has surfaced in at least 55 of the roughly 200 facilities that ICE uses. More than 1,400 detainees have been infected, roughly half of all those tested, ICE data show. Two immigrants and three staffers have died.

ICE declined to provide information on how many transfers have occurred throughout the pandemic. But NBC News identified nearly 80 since the pandemic was declared, and that is not a complete accounting. The analysis includes moves between immigration detention facilities as well as from criminal to ICE custody. Individual detainees are often moved several times prior to deportation.