Vera’s attempt to model COVID-19 prevalence underscores that ICE continues to keep critical information from the public. Though ICE updates some basic numbers on its detention statistics webpage on a weekly basis and its COVID-19 webpage roughly once per weekday, these figures are insufficient for understanding what happens to people detained by ICE and how COVID-19 may be spreading within and between facilities. As the numbers shared on these pages are regularly replaced, it is difficult to understand how numbers change over time. Reported numbers can vary by levels of analysis (e.g., reported nationally in aggregate or per facility), time periods (e.g., year-to-date, month-to-date, snapshot on a given day), and by the population they refer to (e.g., whether they include detained people who have since been booked out of detention). This manner of reporting, along with missing information and a lack of publicly available data, makes it impossible to answer fundamental questions about ICE operations and their impact on people in detention:

How many people are being detained and where? Though ICE is providing weekly updates to the aggregate number of people booked in to detention nationally, it is not sharing where it apprehends people, who it prioritizes for apprehension, or the number of people it books in to each facility. In addition to reporting the national average daily populations for the fiscal year and month, ICE should report for each of its facilities the number of people booked in to custody, transferred in and out, and booked out for release or deportation. As ICE detention numbers continue to decline following changes to immigration policy that predate the pandemic, ICE should share patterns of its facility and bed use with the public whose taxpayer dollars fund these operations. To ensure ongoing accountability to the public, ICE should regularly release anonymized, individual-level detention data from its Enforcement Integrated Database (EID), just as the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) releases anonymized records of immigration court proceedings on a monthly basis.

Who is being tested? At the national level, ICE has released the cumulative number of COVID-19 tests administered, yet pairs this information with the current (not cumulative) number of people detained and the current number of positive COVID-19 cases. It has not provided information on the number of tests conducted among the currently detained population, nor has it disclosed who is eligible for testing, how tests are counted (e.g., what typical lags occur between date tested and date confirmed, whether pending tests are included in the total number), or if anyone has been tested before transfer or release/deportation. For each facility, ICE reports only the current and total number of cases. ICE does not pair that information with current or cumulative numbers of people detained or with the number of negative or pending tests. As of May 31, 2020, ICE had reported confirmed COVID-19 cases in only 60 of the more than 200 facilities it uses. It is unclear if it has performed any tests in facilities with no positive cases to date.

How are sick and at-risk people being treated? While ICE has shared a document detailing its COVID-19 pandemic response requirements as of April 10, 2020, it does not report information that would allow the public to understand the extent to which it is following these regulations.U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, “Enforcement and Removal Operations: COVID-19 Pandemic Response Requirements,” April 10, 2020, ICE has not provided detailed additional information about the people with confirmed COVID-19 cases in its care, including the number of people hospitalized, recovered, and released from each facility. The public knows very little about how people in detention are being treated and what is being done to minimize risk of exposure.

Who has been released and under what criteria? ICE has shared few details about people who have been released from custody to minimize risk or improve their access to care. Aside from reporting the number of people released through judicial orders (465 people as of June 11, 2020), ICE does not report on the number of people released or deported on an ongoing basis, even at a national aggregate level. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, “ICE Guidance on COVID-19: Judicial Releases,” (page updated regularly)

Who is being transferred and why? The transfer of people with COVID-19 between detention facilities affects the spread of the virus within the receiving facilities and the surrounding communities. Vera’s model predicts that, under fiscal year 2016 transfer patterns, the risk posed by this practice may be substantial. While ICE has not made information about current transfers publicly available, it is apparent that ICE has not stopped transferring people between facilities and is not testing the people it moves. In areas housing ICE detention centers, local stakeholders must be informed whether the federal government is transferring people from facilities with high numbers of COVID-19 cases. This information is necessary to ensure community safety and to give local healthcare providers the opportunity to guarantee adequate capacity.

ICE’s lack of transparency makes it difficult to predict the risks confronting people being held for civil immigration reasons. However, as Vera’s model demonstrates, the true scale of the spread of COVID-19 in ICE detention is likely to be shockingly high. ICE has caused preventable harm and continues to endanger people’s lives and wellbeing—both inside and outside of its facilities—with its policies and ongoing operations.


The authors would like to acknowledge the following people and organizations who made this work possible: David Hausman for providing ICE detention data acquired through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA); the authors of Lofgren et al. 2020 for access to their SEIR model, along with their generosity in explaining the workings of their model; Recidiviz for our use of their model as a template for how a discrete-time model can be specified. Vera also acknowledges how useful data from the Marshall Project, Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, and Freedom for Immigrants has been in modeling our work.

For more information about the underlying public data or Vera’s methodology on this report, please contact