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Home / Press Release / Detained in Danger: Database raises troubling questions about COVID-19 in ICE Detention Centers
June 11, 2020

Detained in Danger: Database raises troubling questions about COVID-19 in ICE Detention Centers

The Harvard College Data Analytics Group, under the auspices of Human Rights First, today launched Detained In Danger (, a database that tracks COVID-19 in ICE detention centers. 

The data, which shows a disregard for CDC distancing protocols, haphazard testing, and a continually rising rate of COVID-19 infection, raises troubling questions about how asylum-seekers and other detainees are being treated by ICE during this pandemic.  

“It’s shocking to see in detail in how many ways ICE is ignoring CDC guidelines for coronavirus at the detention centers it runs,” said Welton Chang, Chief Technology Officer at Human Rights First.  “Without Harvard College Analytics Group’s data, leaders might say they’re trying to ameliorate these conditions.  Real-time analysis suggests that this kind of abuse may actually be ICE policy.  It’s so pervasive, it may as well be.”    

Holding back tears, a detainee named Daniel Bayardo* shares: “I really, really don’t want to die in here. I still have a strong will to live and many unfulfilled dreams.” He adds, “This whole situation is too painful to bear. I haven’t committed a crime, so why do I feel so condemned?”

Top findings from the database raise questions ICE should have to answer.  

  • ICE facilities make social distancing impossible.  Many, like Otay Mesa Detention Center, cram 8 detainees in 250 square foot cells.  ICE also groups up to 90 COVID-exposed detainees in shared living spaces, called pods, to isolate the exposed from general populations. “CDC social distancing is impossible,” reports San Diego-based immigration attorney Ginger Jacobs.  
  • ICE has tested 5,096 of 25,911 detainees in custody--10% of the detained population. Interviews with attorneys and detainees confirm that in many facilities, tests are accessible only to the most symptomatic inmates.  This data raises an important question:  how many COVID-19 cases are undetected in the ICE detention system?
  • Of the 5,096 detainees ICE has tested across the nation, 1,709 received positive results. This positivity-rate, hovering at 34% nationally, surpasses 70% at some detention centers. Both far exceed the national benchmark of 5%.  ICE policies around social distancing and testing protocols are surely responsible for the spike in positivity at their facilities.  
  • At the same time that ICE detention centers average 50% positive results, the majority of facilities (77) report no cases.  As ICE does not publish data on facility-level testing, the data cannot determine whether cases exist but are not tested, or no cases exist.  Are there truly no cases at these facilities – or just no testing?  
  • Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in ICE detention facilities continue to rapidly climb despite insufficient access to testing, as conditions in these facilities violate CDC recommendations.  Beyond distancing guidelines, access to PPE is severely rationed.
  • Even in the COVID-19 pandemic, ICE transfers detainees between facilities.  Our research uncovered detainees who had been moved up to five times.  Because of the lack of adequate testing, how can ICE know whether it is spreading infection throughout its system?

“Our research shows that there need to be major changes in ICE policy,” said Anna Duffy, leader of Harvard College Data Analytics Group. “ICE should universally test all detainees.  If they can’t provide social distancing in detention, and provide clean, sanitized spaces, ICE should release detainees who do not pose a flight risk.  These people are trying to become Americans.  That should not be a death sentence.”  

The project includes a map of cases in every ICE detention facility in the US, conditions in these facilities, and several articles explaining the data and its limitations. 

For more information, please visit or contact [email protected] 

* Daniel Bayardo is a pseudonym.